Shame on Anti-vaccinators

IMG_3414A few years ago I wrote a blog post “Nurses and Anti-Vaccination” (6-4-12). The post stirred up some interesting and impassioned reader comments.  I said then that as a health care provider I consider it my professional duty to stay current on recommended vaccinations, including the annual flu vaccine. I still believe that. In fact, I’ll extend it to state that I believe it is a basic ethical and civic duty for everyone within a community to stay current on recommended vaccinations–unless they have valid medical reasons for an exemption. And, it is a basic duty of our public health/ health care systems to ensure equal access to safe and affordable vaccines.

With the current mutli-state serious measles outbreaks caused by anti-vaccinator parents opting out of vaccinating their children (and then taking them to Disneyland), there seems to be growing public sentiment in favor of stricter vaccine regulations. An important aspect of this ‘hot topic’ which is left out of most news reports, is the fact that it is mainly affluent, educated, white parents who are the anti-vaccinators. They typically believe in everything ‘natural,’ including how natural it is for small children to get really sick (and die) from ‘natural’ childhood communicable diseases. For the truly paranoid/OCD, this would be yet another good reason to never shop at Whole Foods, since I am convinced their shoppers have some of the highest rates of anti-vaccination anywhere in a community.

But on a less strident note, I do understand that anti-vaccinators (parents or otherwise) are not evil or stupid–and that it does no good from a practical and public health perspective to try and shame them into changing their minds. As I teach my nursing students, in approaching this topic with friends, family members, and patients, it is helpful to step back and use positive communication techniques from motivational interviewing–of establishing basic respect first, then exploring the motivations, fears, and beliefs behind the action. Only then can possible positive changes occur.

This past year, Eula Biss’ book On Immunity:An Innoculation (Graywolf Press 2014) addressed the issues related to anti-vaccination. I had high hopes when I first purchased her book and began to read it. While the book is well-written and mostly a pleasure to read, it was almost too easy to read. It felt more like I was eavesdropping on informal chatty banter from a neurotic new mother, albeit from an intelligent (and likeable) neurotic new mother. And while I understand her choice to not include real citations/footnotes for sources, that made me not trust many of the things she claimed to be ‘facts.’ I got really annoyed with how many times she inserted random quotes from her oncologist father. Other quotes/comments she included from various ‘experts’ seemed to be straight out of Frontline’s ‘video ‘The Vaccine War’ from 2010. Frontline’s website is an excellent and more updated resource for discussion and education on this topic. Michelle Dean posted the interesting piece ‘A Q&A With Eula Biss’ with further insights into why she wrote the book (Gawker Review of Books, 9-30-14).

The national debate on vaccination continues. Epidemiologist Saad B. Omer from Emery University wrote an important NYT op-ed piece “How to Handle Vaccine Skeptics” (2-6-15) advocating for policy-level changes to address high ‘opt-out’ rates. And poor Mississippi even made the news recently in conjunction with this topic: they have among the strictest state vaccine ‘opt-out’ laws and “the country’s highest immunization rate among kindergartners.” (Alan Blinder, “Mississippi: A Vaccination Leader, Stands By Its Strict RulesNYT, 2-4-15).

Nurses and Anti-Vaccination

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?

English: Avian flu vaccine development by Reve...
English: Avian flu vaccine development by Reverse Genetics technique. Basa Sunda: Ngembangkeun vaksin flu unggas maké téhnik reverse genetics. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

” (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).