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The Challenge of Changing Perceptions of Vaccines

After years as an itinerant engineer bachelor my friend, whom we will call him Max, got married last year. He settled down into a little house in the San Francisco Bay Area and prepared for the arrival of his first child. Over a Baja-style fish taco, Max and his wife asked me whether I had an opinion about vaccines and potential risks.

A public health devotee, I immediately volunteered the fact that there is no link between childhood vaccines and autism. A new book I’m reading called The Panic Virus describes the source of this concern as a peer-reviewed article that was based on a small set of parental recollections. It was ultimately retracted by The Lancet, and the author lost his medical license for fabricating data. There really should not be a debate as scientific study after scientific study has provided counter evidence.

Of course, there is never a completely safe vaccine; there have been manufacturing mess-ups and real risks ever since the original Salk polio vaccine caused 10 deaths in the mid-1950s. The challenge that I faced in responding to Max’s question was the same one that multiple public health stakeholders, from the CDC to the Government of India, face when responding to concerns about the new HPV vaccine. How do you reassure a skeptical parent, when you can never disprove a link? The debate has long ago taken to the public. Jenny McCarthy feeds these fears when she speaks publicly about her belief that vaccines caused autism in her kids. I can get worked up when talking about this issue and my conversation with Max was probably not an exception.

Changing the perception of vaccines among the segment of the public that still fears them remains difficult. Our Global Health advisor Heidi Larson writes about how vaccines, the centerpiece of UNICEF programs, have been questioned by populations globally from California to India. Bill Gates writes about the important role of vaccines in his foundation’s mission in his latest annual letter. While these tools are important, I’m still not sure how to respond to Max’s concerns in a way that will acknowledge and assuage his fears.
Last month the baby was born. Max now has a healthy and sweet-smelling little boy. I couldn’t be happier for them, but for me there remains a nagging question. Will Max’s little boy be protected from whooping cough, which killed six unvaccinated kids in California last year?

How do you engage productively and professionally in a dialogue around these personally charged choices that are important public health issues?