The call for help came from another physician on social media. Dr. Jen Trachtenberg, pediatrician and parenting expert at AskDrJen, had posted a video for National Immunization Awareness Month on her Facebook, Instagram and Twitter feed.
Unfortunately (but predictably), a small group of anti-vaccination trolls made her the target of a hateful campaign, posting a number of rude, bullying, and personally insulting remarks. This is, after all, the modus operandi of most hate-and fear-based groups: insult, harass, threaten, silence. She was being bombarded on her Instagram, so she posted a call for backup on our Doctors in Social Media Facebook page.
Believe it or not, I hesitated to get involved. I’m a mother, and worried about how my public views may impact my kids. Some of these hateful trolls will go out of their way to personally target physicians’ families. According to one member of our group, AntiVaxxers were posting ugly remarks on her family photos; another had to block numerous inappropriate comments on her feed.
That says alot about the nature of these groups. But: the more of us who step forward and speak up, the less power they will have.
I decided to put myself out there, in the name of truth, justice, and the Evidence-Based Way. I posted this on her Instagram, which was getting the heaviest bombardment:
“While working as a physician in rural Central America, I witnessed indigent unvaccinated patients, including children, die from tetanus, meningitis, pneumonia, cervical cancer, and one young man from squamous cell carcinoma of the penis (high-risk HPV). I understand the legitimate concerns many people have regarding side effects of medications, including vaccines. As a researcher, I like to review the original studies for myself, and be open-minded to both sides of this issue. In the case of currently recommended vaccines, there is ample solid evidence favoring significant benefits over the risks. Stories on the internet have little basis in fact, and concerns aren’t borne out in clinical research trials. This is why I feel comfortable (and thankful) to vaccinate myself and my children. I think if more Americans spent time in the developing world, where people without access to basic medical care are far more likely to suffer and die from preventable diseases, we would not see any opposition to vaccines. I feel sorry for people who believe the unsubstantiated claims of this bizarre, illogical anti-vaccine movement, and I pray for those who refuse vaccination that they and their innocent children are protected through herd immunity.”
As predicted, negative replies from the trolls have been trickling in ever since.
But that’s okay. My honest, informational comment in support of vaccination is not intended for them. It is intended for those who are on the fence, who aren’t sure what to believe or who to trust, and are looking for facts and truth.
I hope that they also find the real-life story of Tara Hills, a mother of seven and former vocal member of the anti-vaccination movement. That is, until her under- and unvaccinated children contracted Pertussis, and the youngest had to be hospitalized. Her personal account titled “Learning the Hard Way: My Journey from AntiVaxx to Science” and published in The Scientific Parent is more powerful than any educational article. Ms. Hills shares her true experience and raw feelings:
“For six years we were frozen in fear from vaccines, and now we are frozen because of the disease. […] I can only hope this painfully honest sharing will help others. I am not looking forward to any gloating or shame as this ‘defection’ from the antivaxx camp goes public, but, this isn’t a popularity contest. Right now my family is living the consequences of misinformation and fear. I understand that families in our community may be mad at us for putting their kids at risk. I want them to know that we tried our best to protect our kids when we were afraid of vaccination and we are doing our best now, for everyone’s sake, by getting them up to date. We can’t take it back … but we can learn from this and help others the same way we have been helped.”
I also hope that those looking for real information can trust the American Academy of Pediatrics, made up entirely of physicians who have made significant personal sacrifices in devotion to the health of children. After all, pediatricians make less money than every single other medical speciality (except for geriatricians… sad how it’s the people caring for the most vulnerable members of society who are the least reimbursed). Pediatricians are in it for the love of the children, there’s no doubt. Check out the healthychildren.org website for a summary of every major vaccine safety study ever published, which includes links to the articles so inquiring minds can read for themselves.
Providers who counsel patients on vaccinations can turn to family practice physician and author Dr. Gretchen LaSalle, who has written several pragmatic articles on how to approach those who are hesitating. Her June 2018 piece for The Journal of Family Practice titled “When the Answer to Vaccines is No” has truly useful tips and recommendations.
Even providers who don’t usually counsel about vaccinations, like specialists and surgeons, can help spread the correct message, simply and quickly. In her 2018 Doximity article, “Dear Specialists: The Vaccine Conversation Needs Your Help“, LaSalle entreats:
“Wouldn’t it send a strong message to our patients if every medical provider, whether you are a Dermatologist or an Orthopedist or a Urologist, etc., encouraged every patient, at every encounter, to make sure they got their flu shot? Patients would hopefully come away thinking, “Well, if my Urologist thinks it’s a good idea to get a flu shot, it must be important!”. Or, for our patients who see multiple providers, “Why do all these healthcare professionals keep asking me if I got my flu shot? Maybe I should get one.”
She also points out that it would be appropriate and indicated for specialists who see head and neck cancers (like ENT) and cervical and vaginal cancers (like GYN) to educate their patients that the common cause of these cancers is the Human Papillomavirus (HPV), and that there is a safe and effective vaccine available.
There’s endless quality research and informational summaries on the safety and efficacy of vaccines, including from the Centers for Disease Control, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the Immunization Action Coalition, the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases, and the World Health Organization, to name a few.
Do side effects and allergic reactions happen? Of course. These will happen with any medication or supplement, including herbs.
Do the benefits of immunizations outweigh the risks? Yes. Without a doubt. Pediatrician author Dr. Claire McCarthy cites the evidence in her Harvard Health Blog post “The Inconvenient Truth of Vaccine Refusal”: Evidence shows that people who do not vaccinate are far more likely to catch the illness they are not protected against. Research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association shows that the majority of those infected in recent U.S. Measles and Pertussis outbreaks were not vaccinated. She points out:
“…we live in a global community. Travel is relatively easy, and lots of people do it. And while we may have done a great job eradicating vaccine-preventable diseases here in the U.S., they certainly haven’t been eradicated from the world. Diphtheria is still alive and well, affecting 50,000 people a year and killing half of them. There are 344,000 cases of measles—and 145,000 deaths from it. For pertussis, the numbers are even higher: 30-50 million cases, and 300,000 deaths.”
We are so lucky, so blessed, to have these preventive miracle drugs available to us here in the country.
In the end, though I’m still seeing all sorts of negative replies to my comment, if it encourages only one person to get vaccinated, it’s worth it.