Public health officials urged to hold national discussion on vaccine risks, benefits

In an op-ed in the New York Times, Michael Willrich, an associate professor of history at Brandeis University, writes , “Despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, roughly one in five Americans believes that vaccines cause autism—a disturbing fact that will probably hold true even after the publication, in a British medical journal, of a report thoroughly debunking the 1998 paper that began the vaccine-autism scare.”

He goes on to say, “That’s because the public’s underlying fear of vaccines goes much deeper than a single paper. Until officials realize that, and learn how to counter such deep-seated concerns, the paranoia—and the public-health risk it poses—will remain.”

After pointing out that “vaccines have had to fight against public skepticism from the beginning” starting with the smallpox vaccine and the feelings by some that required vaccinations are an infringement on personal liberty, Willrich asserts, “Until officials realize that, and learn how to counter such deep-seated concerns, the paranoia—and the public-health risk it poses—will remain.”

He concludes with these thoughts, with which I agree: “Why waste another breath vilifying the antivaccination minority when steps can be taken to expand the pro-vaccine majority?”

“Obstetricians, midwives and pediatricians should present the facts about vaccines and the nasty diseases they prevent early and often to expectant parents. Health agencies should mobilize local parents’ organizations to publicize, in realistic terms, the hazards that unvaccinated children can pose to everyone else in their communities. And health officials must redouble their efforts to harness the power of the Internet and spread the good word about vaccines.”

We family physicians can and should be part of the discussion.

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