Off the Cuff: Making the case for childhood immunization

Kasisomayajula “Vish” Viswanath
Kasisomayajula “Vish” Viswanath

Kasisomayajula “Vish” Viswanath, professor of health communication, Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences

Q: There has been an uptick of measles, whooping cough, and other infections in the United States. Many of these infections, which are routinely prevented by childhood immunizations, have been traced to pockets of communities where parents either refuse or delay childhood vaccination. A study published in March in Pediatrics found that more than 70 percent of children’s physicians have agreed to parents’ requests to delay vaccination—even though the doctors believe it puts children at risk. How can public health best make its case for childhood vaccination?

A: Two messages seem to be getting lost in the current discussion. One is that most parents in the United States—well over 90 percent—get their children vaccinated. Vaccination is the norm. The media imply that there are two sides to this story when there aren’t. Rather, a tiny group that opposes vaccination is receiving a disproportionate share of media attention, sowing doubt where there is none. There is only one, dominant scientific side and most everyone believes it. Second, some parents do have concerns about vaccines and their possible adverse impacts—but they still get their children vaccinated. These parents are not anti-vaccine. Parents should ask questions about any medical procedure that affects their children. Just providing facts and numbers is not the most effective way to communicate. So why don’t we in public health tell more stories? First, because we have taken the success of childhood immunization for granted. Second, because of that success, there are very few emotional stories to draw on. In the early 1960s, I could have easily recited a sad story about an unvaccinated child contracting polio in the U.S., but today I can’t. Yet an anti vaccine group can take a compelling story about an autistic child and make specious causal attributions to vaccines, based on fraudulent research. We must not let that kind of flawed science go uncontested—and the media, frankly, have a responsibility to stop reporting it.

Madeleine Drexler is editor of Harvard Public Health

Photo: Kent Dayton/ Harvard Chan School