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How can doctors help parents be less scared about vaccines?

Posted by Dr. Claire McCarthy  March 6, 2014 06:25 AM

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3969946251 (1).jpgAs a pediatrician, I spend a lot of time talking to families about vaccines. And what I've found over the years is that by the time people get to me, they've mostly made up their minds about vaccines. What I say matters--but doesn't necessarily change what they believe. 

So I wasn't surprised to read the recent study published in the journal Pediatrics. Researchers wanted to see what kinds of educational materials might make people more likely to give their child the MMR (Measles-Mumps-Rubella) vaccine. 

They divided a whole bunch of parents into five groups. Four of them got one of the these educational materials:
  • information about the lack of evidence that the MMR vaccine causes autism
  • Written information about measles, mumps and rubella
  • Pictures of children with measles, mumps and rubella
  • "A dramatic narrative about an infant who almost died of measles."
The last group, the control group, got nothing at all.

Guess what? None of the materials did anything to make people more likely to give the vaccine. If anything, they made them less likely. This was especially true among people who already felt "unfavorable" toward vaccines, but the materials didn't make any difference in the "somewhat favorable" or "most favorable" groups either. 

We doctors might as well keep our mouths shut; we'd have the same outcome. Better, maybe.

Clearly, many people are more scared of the side effects of vaccines than they are of the diseases vaccines prevent--and they don't trust us doctors.

All medical treatments have risks. Many common treatments, like antibiotics, are more likely to cause side effects than vaccines--yet they don't make parents anxious the way vaccines do.

Vaccines are...different. In part, they are different because of the remarkable culture of distrust (and confusing and contradictory information and misinformation) that has grown around them. They are also different because they are used to prevent, not to treat. It's much easier to understand using antibiotics to treat an infection--it seems clear and necessary. But using vaccines (which work in a way that feels mysterious) to prevent illnesses, many of which have become uncommon, can be harder to understand.

I get that. But vaccines work. And overall, they are safer than the illnesses they prevent--which is what those educational materials in the study were trying to point out. And if enough people refuse the vaccines, those illnesses won't be uncommon anymore.

I've found that with parents who are on the fence, talking specifically about what worries them helps. While I'm not a big fan of alternative schedules (the schedules we use are designed to make the best and safest use the vaccines), I figure that some immunization is better than nothing, and I'm always willing to talk about doing things differently. Ultimately, parents are in charge, not me. I'm here to give the best information I can, and to help in any way I can. 

I'm really curious: is there anything a doctor has said about vaccines that has been helpful, no matter what decision you ultimately made? If the helpful information didn't come from us, where did you get it? How did it help? What do you wish we would ask you or tell you?

We are united in wanting your children to be healthy. How can we work better together when it comes to vaccines?

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About MD Mama

Claire McCarthy, M.D., is a pediatrician and Medical Communications Editor at Boston Children's Hospital . An assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and a senior editor for Harvard More »

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