Vaccine Hesitancy: A Medical Problem With A Social Solution
Education and Advocacy The development and widespread adoption of vaccination was a watershed moment in human history, seeing the eradication or near-eradication of several infectious diseases through population-level immunity.
Today, in Canada and elsewhere, increasing hesitancy and noncompliance surrounding vaccination is putting much of healthcare's progress at risk.
Unless we want to walk back a substantial portion of those additional 25 years of life expectancy, it is vital that all Canadians be on board with the nationwide vaccination program. More than anything else, achieving this requires educating parents about the efficacy and safety of vaccines, as well as the very real dangers of vaccine-preventable diseases.
“When you refuse a vaccine, it is not just yourself that you put at risk.”
No parent wants their child to get sick
“Every parent wants to do what’s best for their child,” says Dr. MacDonald. “But in order to do what’s best, they need good information from good sources.” Many parents have been exposed to inaccurate information about vaccines through the Internet and the wider media. When presented with conflicting information, it can be difficult for parents to know what is scientifically supported and what is not, especially when it comes to the relative risks of vaccines versus the diseases they prevent.
“Each parent has their own views and beliefs,” says Dr. Eve Dubé medical anthropologist at the Institut National de Santé Publique du Québec. “It’s not that they’re ignorant. It’s that in countries like Canada, the vaccine-preventable diseases have almost disappeared, so people don’t fear them as much as in the past.” At the same time, parents increasingly are fearing the negative side effects of vaccines, both real and imagined.
Paramount among these is the belief in a link between vaccination and autism, a connection that has been incontrovertibly shown not to exist, with the study that originally proposed it thoroughly discredited. Still, when the scientific literature is inaccessible to most parents, it can be hard to sort through what is truth and what is noise, especially when the spectre of autism is readily visible.
“For a parent who doesn’t know anyone suffering from polio, but does know someone whose child is autistic, it’s easier to think about the bad outcomes,” says Dr. Dubé. The same is true for the lesser, but real, side-effects of vaccines. Some vaccines can cause swelling and fevers, and all needles carry with them the risk of discomfort and distress for the child, particularly with infants. Very rarely children can have more serious, but treatable, allergic reactions, which is why healthcare providers monitor children for a short time after vaccination.
In reality, vaccines in Canada are incredibly safe. They are held to a more rigorous testing standard than other drugs before being approved for use. Even after approval, vaccine safety is monitored continuously. And most of the vaccines approved in Canada are also in widespread use in other countries globally, allowing Canada to take advantage of a much larger pool of safety and effectiveness data when evaluating vaccination programs.
Vaccination is a community issue
It’s important for parents to realize that vaccination is a community issue more than a private one. Vaccines are rarely 100 percent effective, and some children, such as those with immune deficiency disorders, may be unable to receive some vaccines. The only effective safety net is the community protection created by widespread immunization, stopping the disease from getting any foothold. “When you refuse a vaccine, it is not just yourself that you put at risk,” says Dr. Dubé.
“We’ve just seen cases of diphtheria returning in Spain, three decades after it was eradicated. When people are not vaccinated, these diseases come back.”
And when one family decides against immunization, that mindset and the unsupportable information behind it often spreads locally, weakening the community as a whole. For this reason, it is vital that people talk to their health care providers to acquire and share accurate information about the remarkable efficacy and safety of vaccination in Canada.