Linda Lewis Griffith

Know an anti-vaxxer? Here’s how to talk to friends, family about vaccinating

Anti-vaxers were the source of our scorn earlier this year.

We blamed them for the measles outbreak. We hissed their name through clenched teeth.

But lest we get too sanctimonious, let’s remember that all parents want to do what’s best for their children.

Yes, our methods may vary. And theirs may have dire health consequences for both their offspring and the community at large.

Still, the ultimate goal — protecting our offspring — remains rock solid for all parties in the debate.

To better understand the anti-vaccine mind set, we can start by using non-inflammatory language.

Health care practitioners prefer vaccine hesitancy or vaccine refusal to describe the behavior and take away the negative implications. They recognize that vilifying the parents doesn’t improve compliance and creates further distrust and alienation.

To be clear, the vast majority of moms and dads immunize their kids. In 2018, nine out of ten felt it was very or somewhat important to vaccinate their children, while only 3% said it was not at all important.

But naysayers are gaining momentum.

In 2007, a survey conducted by the America Academy of Pediatrics found that 75% of pediatricians encountered a parent who refused to allow at least one vaccine.

A follow-up survey six years later showed that number had jumped to 87% of pediatricians. In the same pair of studies, pediatricians reported an increase in parents refusing one or more vaccines from 9.1 to 16.7%

Belief systems vary by region. During the 2017-2018 school year, 7.6% of Oregon’s kindergarteners were exempted from receiving immunizations, the highest in the country.

Anti-vaccination fervor isn’t new.

The earliest efforts to inoculate people against smallpox in 1721 were met with skepticism. When the vaccinations were ultimately proven successful, religious institutions joined the chorus.

One sermon from 1772, entitled “The Dangerous and Sinful Practice of Inoculation,” warned parishioners that diseases were a punishment from God.

While studies repeatedly dispel rumors of any link between health problems and vaccines, vaccine refusers continue to harbor a host of concerns. Some fear the pain caused by multiple injections or worry that too many vaccinations are given in a single office visit. Others express a lack of confidence in doctors or the medical field.

If you are dealing with a vaccine-hesitant family member, friend or patient, consider these suggestions:

Listen to their concerns and acknowledge them in a non-confrontational manner. Condescension or hostility only force them into retreat.

Understand that they are operating out of fear. Fear is treated differently than ignorance or paranoia. Do everything you can to allay anxiety.

Provide information. Arm yourself with the latest information from scientifically valid resources. Emphasize medical consensus to show that the vast majority of experts espouse the same opinions.

Discuss social responsibility. Explain the concept of herd immunity, which describes how a population is protected from a disease after vaccination. Point out that the entire community is impacted by parents’ vaccination decisions.

Share vaccine success stories. Remind them that horrible diseases such as polio, smallpox and whooping cough have been nearly eradicated because of vaccines. Once-common childhood illnesses are now a rarity. Still, vigilance is necessary to keep them at bay. And we all must do our part.

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