Finding new ways to talk about vaccination may be our best protection

This article, by Katherine Weatherford Darling of the University of Maine and Anny Fenton of Harvard University, was originally published on the Bangor Daily News opinion page on September 10, 2019.

Paul Vernon | AP

As parents of infants, the fear of vaccine preventable diseases like measles and pertussis is persistent. When we are out in shops, gyms, libraries, airports, and museums with our infants, the fear of vaccine preventable diseases such as measles and pertussis follows us. Is that runny nose just a sniffle or something more? Who has walked through here in the last two hours? What are the chances they carried measles?

The vocal and vitriolic vaccine debate in Maine and across the U.S. has created a climate of fear around talking about vaccines. We always knew parenting a young infant would come with unexpected challenges, but we didn’t anticipate one fear: talking to other parents about vaccination.

This is especially surprising for us because we’re medical sociologists. One of us (Dr. Fenton) is even specifically focused on vaccines. Though we spent years of study and research in a field that tackles the social complexities of health and healthcare, we each found ourselves unprepared for the practical challenges of addressing vaccine hesitancy in our communities: Does that parent at the park vaccinate? Should I comment on that Facebook post about vaccines? What do we say? How do we say it? How do we handle the backlash?

For Maine to truly address the risks of vaccine-preventable disease, we have to find new ways to get Mainers talking about vaccines. As parents scared for our kids, we sometimes get frustrated with parents who don’t vaccinate. Yet, as medical sociologists, we know that decades of research on public health messaging shows that shaming and blaming people doesn’t change anyone’s mind. In fact, it can stigmatize vulnerable groups, like unvaccinated children.

We also know that education alone doesn’t work. These parents know vaccines are almost 100% safe — most were vaccinated as children. They are worried about the rare instance when a child has a reaction to a vaccine and would rather take their chances by limiting their child’s exposure to vaccine-preventable diseases.

We can’t legislate or education our way out of the problem of vaccine hesitancy — resistance or refusal of recommended vaccine schedules. Studies show strengthening vaccination laws improves vaccination rates. However, it can also force vaccine hesitant parents into medical choices for their children that they are scared of and alienates and silos these families, which stigmatizes them, harms communities, and increases the chances of outbreak. Health communications researchers like Anny find that, when medical professionals clearly and briefly recommend vaccines, more parents vaccinate. Yet, there’s little research on what to do when parents refuse or remain hesitant.

Therefore, to effectively address vaccine hesitancy, we must first tackle the basic challenges of talking about vaccines. To do so, we need social science research to understand more about the social forces creating the uncertainty and misinformation behind vaccine hesitancy.

Additionally, since successful public health campaigns don’t roll out in a vacuum, parents, healthcare professionals, and caregivers need education about effective and evidence-based communication strategies. Our universities and healthcare systems must also help by funding research and evidence-based interventions in health communication and medical sociology.

Rather than singling out families that choose not to follow vaccine schedules or pejoratively labeling patients “non-compliant” or distrustful, researchers and public health practitioners must start asking more difficult and fundamental questions about how our healthcare systems earn and maintain community trust.

Hesitant or enthusiastic about vaccination, we all should be concerned about the record number of outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases and the vicious tone used by both sides of the vaccine debate in Maine and across the U.S. The pertussis rate in Maine is the highest in the nation. To truly address the risks that vaccine-preventable disease pose to our most medically vulnerable families, we need to find new ways to get Mainers talking about vaccines.

Katherine Weatherford Darling is an assistant professor of sociology at the University Maine at Augusta and affiliated at University of Maine Graduate School of Biomedical Science and Engineering. Anny Fenton is a postdoctoral fellow at Maine Medical Center Research Institute’s Center for Outcomes Research & Evaluation. This column reflects their views and expertise and does not speak on behalf of their institutions. Both are members of the Maine chapter of the national Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. SSN members’ columns appear in the BDN every other week.

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