Thursday, May 7, 2009

Swine Flu's Teachable Moment

An Opportunity for Public Health and Vaccine Manufacturers
It was disturbing to read about a growing public health threat in "Vaccine Refusal, Mandatory Immunization, and the Risks of Vaccine-Preventable Diseases" in this week's New England Journal of Medicine (Omer et al.). The bottom line is that there is a critical need for new education and policy efforts to protect children (sometimes from their own parents) and the general public.

Here's an example of some of the bad news: In the case of measles, it's been estimated that more than two million cases occurred each year in the U.S. before a vaccine was available. In a triumph of science and medicine, the number of cases dropped to a mean of 62 per year between 2000 and 2007. In the first four months of 2008, however, 64 cases were reported with 63 of those occurring in children who were not vaccinated. Why?
  • Past success. With a number of diseases nearly wiped out by vaccines, it seems as though our memories have been wiped out as well. As time marches on, many have forgotten the potential severity of vaccine-preventable diseases. Using the measles example, some cases can cause pneumonia, seizures, meningitis or even death.

  • Alternative medicine and junk science. Of course, "western medicine" does not have all the answers. But it's been reported that parents of unvaccinated children "were more likely than parents of vaccinated children both to have providers who offered complementary or alternative health care and to obtain information from the Internet and groups opposed to aspects of immunization."

  • Ease of opting out. Although the constitutionality of mandatory immunizations has been upheld, individual states have the ability to set the bar and allow exemptions based on personal or religious beliefs. In another unfortunate example, "the mean annual incidence of pertussis was almost twice as high in states with administrative procedures that made it easy to obtain exemptions as in states that made it more difficult." It was reported also that children with exemptions were 35 times more likely to contract measles.

  • Denial. Compared to parents of vaccinated children, significantly more parents of unvaccinated children believed their kids had a low susceptibility to diseases (58% vs. 15%) and that the severity of disease was low (51% vs. 18%).

  • Lack of trust. Again, compared to parents of vaccinated children, significantly more parents of unvaccinated children believed that vaccine efficacy and safety were low (58% vs. 17%, 60% vs. 15%).

Although the hearts of parents who withhold vaccinations from their children for non-medical reasons might be in the right place, their brains are not. In the "rugged individualism" that many Americans use to define themselves, there is a consequence of putting others in harm's way. Those who are unvaccinated put their communities at a higher risk of disease outbreak.

Now, there's a race to develop another vaccine -- this one against the swine (H1N1) flu. Although no one wants a new disease to contend with, there may be a silver lining -- a chance to reengage the public on the importance of immunizations. No doubt there will be an educational push when the vaccine is available. But at the same time, a campaign should be tied-in to reverse the dangerous growth of vaccination exemptions.

No vaccine is risk-free and not every mind can be changed. Still, the CDC (with their reach and clout), vaccine manufacturers (who can gain sales and reputation) and health care providers (who are a trusted source and carry influence on family health care decisions) should join forces to develop a new dialogue with the public. And let's sustain the discussion, let's put the science and evidence in perspective, and let's build some trust.

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