On June 20, NCL hosted the first Health Advisory Council meeting of 2019. The summer meeting featured a panel of leading experts in the vaccine and child immunization space who highlighted barriers and opportunities for growth in addressing vaccine-hesitant and anti-vaccine parents. The objective of this gathering was to inform and bolster Member organizations’ dissemination of evidence-based vaccine information, across the human lifespan, to their populations served.
The following panelists shared their unique perspectives and diverse experiences of navigating the current vaccine landscape. The panel discussion concluded with the panelists addressing questions from Council Member about current disease outbreaks and vaccine hesitancy prevalent in the country:
- Moderator: Nissa Shaffi, Health Policy & Programs Associate, National Consumers League
- Lena Sun, National Health Reporter, The Washington Post
- Melinda Wharton MD, MPH, Director of Immunization Services Division, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
- Kim Nelson, Founder, and Grassroots Activist, South Carolina Parents for Vaccines
- Linda Fu, MD, Director of Academic Development for Community Pediatrics, Children’s National Health System
Lena Sun, National Health Reporter, The Washington Post
Lena kicked off the panel by discussing her coverage of the current measles outbreak across the country. Lena’s coverage has shed light on the impact that the anti-vaccine movement has had on the spread of the disease within particular communities, which has been integral in understanding the fears and hesitance that has led to the aggressive prevalence of the illness. Lena’s stories have uncovered the magnitude of this phenomenon–from the sentiments that have catalyzed its growth, to the parties who have directly financed prominent anti-vaccine movements.
Lena is currently in the process of curating video stories to explain and show how aggressive and damaging these vaccine-preventable diseases can be. The anti-vaccine community is incredibly visible and loud; the pro-vaccination side needs to be too. Although Lena made clear that her job as a reporter is to report on strictly what she’s observed, she implored the advocates in the room to stay vigilant and informed on the rising cases and continue to disseminate evidence-based, factual information about the safety and effectiveness of vaccines to combat anti-vaccine influence.
Dr. Melinda Wharton MD, MPH, Director of Immunization Services Division, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
Dr. Wharton provided insight into what the CDC is doing to mitigate the damage done by the anti-vaccine movement. Dr. Wharton reassured Members that while the anti-vaccine movement is gaining international notoriety, the majority of the population is still getting vaccinated and that only a little over 1 percent of children are unvaccinated. However, even with this promising trend, it’s essential to acknowledge the influence anti-vaccine groups have on isolated communities. Dr. Wharton warned of how the advancements made by vaccines are at stake due to rising anti-vaccine sentiments and that if the trend of forgoing vaccination continues, once eradicated diseases will make their way back into society.
Dr. Wharton told Members about the taskforces the CDC has in place to combat these rising sentiments and deliver culturally competent technical assistance to vaccine-hesitant communities that emphasize the safety and effectiveness of vaccines. Dr. Wharton expressed the vital role advocates and providers play in implementing national health standards and urged Members to be the first point of contact in communities that have prevalent vaccine hesitancy and to do so early and quickly, to ensure that scientific information about the efficacy, safety, and importance of vaccines can be the first thing they hear.
Kim Nelson, Founder, and Grassroots Activist, South Carolina Parents for Vaccines
Kim Nelson is the founder of South Carolina Parents for Vaccines. Concerned by rising anti-vaccine sentiments in her community, Kim mobilized to help disseminate vital information about the safety and effectiveness of vaccines. Being a mother of two herself, Kim shared with Members her experiences of reaching out to vaccine-hesitant parents in her state.
Kim also made the critical distinction between anti-vaccine and vaccine-hesitant sentiments and elaborated that there is no sense in rationalizing the importance of vaccines with anti-vaccine groups. Instead, advocates should reach out to vaccine-questioning communities because they are just looking for information, in a judgment-free space.
The anti-vaccine movement provides vaccine-hesitant parents with a sense of community and belonging in a way that validates their fears. Kim discussed this phenomenon and expressed the importance of assuaging these fears with time, patience, and relevant information.
Dr. Linda Fu, MD, Director of Academic Development for Community Pediatrics, Children’s National Health System
Dr. Fu is a DC-based pediatrician and serves as the Director of Academic Development for Community Pediatrics at the Children’s National Hospital. Dr. Fu spoke to her research and advocacy, which prioritizes protecting the community from vaccine-preventable diseases by understanding the barriers to children being vaccine adherent.
Dr. Fu highlighted the importance of providers guiding parents towards adhering to vaccine schedules, and the impact that provider and patient engagement have on vaccine uptake. Dr. Fu also mentioned a rise in young doctors who do not appreciate the value for vaccines used to prevent previously eradicated illnesses, as they do not have firsthand experience in treating these conditions. As a result, they do not administer these vaccines, and as a result, combined with anti-vaccine sentiments, these illnesses are making a resurgence.
Dr. Fu shared the following tips for providers to enhance their engagement with patients with regards to vaccines:
- Take the genuine time and interest to meet with vaccine-hesitant parents
- Listen to and acknowledge their fears; establish that vaccination is the norm
- Help parents to understand that the anti-vaccine community is the vocal minority
- Help address vaccine hesitancy within the medical community
Q&A and discussion
During the question and answer session, Members raised various concerns regarding the ongoing measles outbreak and how advocates can confront vaccine-hesitancy directly. The panelists advised the audience to be sure to amplify the safety and effectiveness of vaccines across all platforms and to frame messaging on the benefits of vaccines in the most impactful manner.
The panelists recounted their personal experiences of navigating hostility from anti-vaccine groups. Lena Sun and Kim Nelson described the actions they take to protect themselves from these groups, who become emboldened within their networks and endanger the well-being of people representing a pro-vaccine stance.
The power of storytelling
Lena discussed her coverage of funders of the anti-vaccine movement, and how essential it is to follow the money with anti-vaccine efforts, in order to curtail these harmful movements. Each of the panelists also stressed the value of storytelling and how vaccine advocates need to use patient stories to spotlight the importance of the protective measures offered by vaccines. The public needs to see the harms caused by the deliberate failure to vaccinate and how these illnesses impact the quality of life.
Getting the word out about the risks of not vaccinating
Parents need consistent and easy to understand information on vaccines. Providers and advocates should address parental concerns with patience and readily available data ready to counteract misleading information contributing to fears about vaccines.
The panelists collectively stressed the value of approaching vaccine-hesitancy with vigilance and with ample facts and acknowledged that it would take an interdisciplinary approach to address this growing issue.