Last week I wrote about the current pertussis epidemic in my home state of Washington, coincidentally the state with the highest percentage of parents opting out of vaccinating their children for all of the usual vaccine-preventable diseases such as polio, tetanus, diptheria, pertussis and hepatitis B. I concluded by hoping that my own pertussis booster would protect me against a planeload of Washington State coughers I recently had the pleasure of sharing a red-eye with on our way to NYC. Since the average incubation time from exposure to pertussis to symptoms is 7-10 days (and can be as long as 21 days), I’m not yet breathing a non-congested sigh of relief. But I’m hopeful.
I am a critical health care consumer and I teach my students to be critical health care providers. On a personal basis I don’t accept all health care screening and prevention guidelines without first examining the evidence and deciding for myself what is best for my own health. For instance, I tend to agree with the conclusions about mammography screening written about (beautifully) by Veneta Masson, a nurse practitioner and poet living in Washington, D.C. in her essay “Why I Don’t Get Mammograms” (Health Affairs/Narrative Matters October 2010). I have used naturopathic, acupuncture and other ‘alternative’ medicine modalities for illnesses that are beyond the abilities of allopathic mainstream medicine to treat. But for most vaccinations, I am a discerning early adopter. Having been threatened with an attack by rabid dogs in Northern Thailand, I have even gotten my rabies vaccine series. Doing street outreach has extra hazards in a country like Thailand. I did get the rabies vaccine series in Bangkok since they cost significantly less there—Bangkok is one of the main WHO rabies centers in the world. (Thailand, a Buddhist country opposed to euthanasia of animals—even rabid ones—has one of the highest rates of rabies in the world).
As a health care provider I consider it my professional duty to stay current on recommended vaccinations, including the annual flu vaccine. I have the option of receiving it at my work site (limited times/places so not very convenient) or at my doctor’s office, or—as I usually opt for—at my local Safeway pharmacy. My annual flu shot comes between shopping for groceries, is immediately covered in full by my health insurance, and is administered by a very friendly and knowledgeable pharmacist within about five minutes of registering for it. (I fully realize all of these lack of barriers/facilitators do not exist for everyone). I have read the evidence on risks and benefits of the annual flu vaccine and am convinced on the side of getting the shot. I listen respectfully to my nurse colleagues who opt out of the flu vaccine, but I am dismayed by how many opt out for anything other than religious or valid medical reasons. I haven’t tried to convince them to change their minds because I never saw that as my job. But if any of them happen to be reading this, I hope they will at least reconsider their decision.
The evidence is fairly overwhelming in favor of nurses and other health care workers getting an annual flu vaccine, in terms of reducing the risk of transmission to their patients as well as co-workers. The flu vaccine has proven to be safe and effective, and the flu vaccine ‘industry’ is not exactly a huge profit making one. Since 1981 the CDC has recommended that all health care workers get the flu vaccine on an annual basis. (A good review from a nursing perspective is Paula Sullivan’s “Influenza Vaccination in Healthcare Workers: Should It be Mandatory? OJIN/available on ANA’s website). Most hospitals have relied on voluntary participation of health care workers, sometimes accompanied by vigorous (and I would suspect costly) education campaigns. While rates of flu vaccine compliance are high for most physicians’ groups (with the notable and not surprising exception of surgeons), the rates of flu vaccine compliance among nurses remain much lower. Why the difference?
A recent article in the journal Vaccine “What Lies Behind the Low Rates of Vaccinations Among Nurses Who Treat Infants?
” (O. Baron-Epel, et al, 30(21), 5-12-12) explored this question (in this case for pertussis vaccination). Researchers in the UK conducted a series of focus groups with 25 public health nurses working at several Mother and Child Healthcare Centers, about their understanding and beliefs on vaccination. Common themes that emerged from the focus groups included the usual barriers to vaccination: fear of side effects, and a lack of perception of personal risk or risk of harming patients. Other barriers included lack of trust in health care authorities (and of health information), strong value of personal autonomy (being able to refuse vaccination), lack of respect of nurses by hospital administrators, and the fact that they did not view themselves as role models for patients. The researchers concluded “There is the need to increase the nurse’s awareness of the unethical aspect of not being immunized and increase the perception of themselves as transmitters of disease.” (p 3154).