What Now? How Can We Turn The Tide?

Since the media got wind of the retraction released by the British Medial Journal early this month calling Andrew Wakefield’s 1998 study “an elaborate fraud” vaccine advocates have praised the triumph of good science over fear and speculation, but done so with slight caution or hesitation. We see this information shared on line and gaining attention but often find ourselves wondering what now? What effect will the publication by the BMJ and the news stories that followed have on public opinion, on vaccination rates, and public health in general? In a few months time, will this story be a mere blip on the media radar, or how as parents, providers, and advocates fighting to eliminate vaccine preventable diseases can we use the Wakefield scandal as a step to help turn the tide toward stronger immunity and a healthier society?

In an editorial by the New York Times on January 21, 2011 Michael Willrich, associate professor of history at Brandeis University, and author of the forthcoming “Pox: An American History” looks at the anti vaccine movement through a historical lens. He uses past examples to show that public opinion against vaccinations is neither a new development nor isolated issue. Anti vaccine sentiment, according to Willrich “reflects complex attitudes toward medicine and the government,” and likewise needs complex solutions in order to make a different. While news of fraudulent research and a false connection between vaccines and autism provides a step in the right direction, it will take more than a news headline to address the multitude of issues compacted to produce today’s anti-vaccine sentiment.

Perhaps as Willrich suggests, what we need is a conversation, a discussion, something like the strategy of C. P. Wertenbaker, a federal health official during the early 20th century who by going out and reaching people made a notable difference in public health. “As smallpox raged across the American South,” recounts Willrich, “Wertenbaker journeyed to small communities and delivered speech after speech on vaccinations before swelling audiences of townsfolk, farmers and families. He listened and replied to people’s fears. He told them about the horrors of smallpox. He candidly presented the latest scientific information about the benefits and risks of vaccination. And he urged his audiences to protect themselves and one another by taking the vaccine. By the time he was done, many of his listeners were already rolling up their sleeves. America’s public health leaders need to do the same, to reclaim the town square with a candid national conversation about the real risks of vaccines, which are minuscule compared with their benefits. Why waste another breath vilifying the antivaccination minority when steps can be taken to expand the pro-vaccine majority?”

Read Willrich’s editorial, Why Parents Fear the Needle and the response letters the NYT published on January 27, 2011 and continue the conversation. Can we turn the tide? What is your organization doing to help make a difference? Share your experience, ideas and resources here.

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