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Preventing a preventive medicine backlash
May 2014
by Jeffrey Bouley  |  Email the author
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A few months ago, I came face-to-face with a sobering and, frankly, depressing bit of news. It seems that one-quarter of Americans don’t realize that the Earth revolves around the sun, and not vice-versa. It was so disheartening that I went online to see if the Flat Earth Society was still an active organization (sadly, it is, and it’s a small wonder I didn’t go into a deep, paralyzing funk at that point).
 
Well, I recovered. And then last month, our managing editor, my second-in-command Lloyd Dunlap, went and forwarded me an email about a survey that shows one-third of American parents still mistakenly link vaccines to autism. Thanks, Lloyd; the bill for my new antidepressant prescription is on its way to you.
 
Anyway, the National Consumers League (NCL) put out the word of its new survey data, which suggests that adult Americans lack sufficient information about the safety of vaccines and the risks of failing to vaccinate for highly contagious diseases.
 
“Despite scientific studies clarifying that vaccines are not linked to autism in children, 33 percent of parents of children under the age of 18 and 29 percent of all adults continue to believe ‘vaccinations can cause autism,’” the NCL notes. “According to public health experts, the failure to vaccinate children has recently led to outbreaks of highly contagious, preventable and sometimes-deadly diseases, like whooping cough.”
 
Some notable other finds of the study:
 
  • Half of parents are aware of the study that linked autism to childhood vaccinations, but only half of these parents are aware that the study has since been discredited and retracted.
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  • While most Americans understand the benefits of vaccination, many still see it as an issue of individual choice.
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  • Only 39 percent of parents surveyed describe themselves as being extremely or very knowledgeable about how vaccines work. But, among those, 35 percent also believe that vaccinations can cause autism.
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This is all the more interesting when you consider what the survey says about whom parents trust for information about vaccines. Right at the top, at 81 percent, is healthcare providers. Then  web-based sources (37 percent), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (32 percent).  family (22 percent) and their children’s schools (10 percent). And, on television, around 23 percent of parents trust physicians like Dr. Oz and Dr. Gupta to relay medical information to the public, 11 percent trust morning shows like the “Today Show,” and 7 percent trust talk show hosts to relay medical information.
 
And yet the continuing myths and backlash against vaccination among many parents. Why?
 
I find myself wondering if, in addition to people latching on to dubious claims for untested natural remedies, the idea that diet can cure everything and so on, perhaps people are experiencing a kind of vaccine overload.
 
Many of us who are parents now got vaccinated as children, and we’ve noticed how much longer the list of childhood vaccinations has become. Some wonder if things like varicella (chickenpox/shingles) and human papillomavirus vaccines being touted for children are more about marketing and sales than about human health. Perhaps then that distrust manifests as an overall distrust of vaccines?
 
I don’t know. But in the end, I wonder if we all might feel better about vaccines—and there are so many promising ones on the horizon for viral infections, cancer and more—if the new ones were marketed more solidly as good options for people to consider rather than having, for example, a vaccine for chickenpox—which doesn’t strike most of us as a huge public health problem—added to a schedule meant to fight measles, polio and other diseases known to be devastating.

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