There are few topics more charged these days than whether or not to vaccinate children. It’s right up there with politics and religion as hot button topics that can ruin friendships.
I used to be on the vaccination fence before I met and married a family doctor and had my first child almost eight years ago. Before kids, I read blog posts by staunch anti-vaxxers, and felt afraid that if I vaccinated my children I would be hurting them.
I recall mentioning this on a date with my would-be-husband, one lovely evening at dinner by the British Columbia ocean side. He explained some things to me, which alleviated my fears and made me realize vaccinations save children’s lives (millions of them, actually) and how much of the uncertainty created by the very vocal anti-vax minority has been built on false or de-bunked information.
In order to keep children safe around the world, in our own neighbourhoods, and even at Disneyland, it is important for parents who are unsure of what to do - and therefore haven’t vaccinated their children - to get information from credible sources.
In this day and age, no child should die due to a vaccine-preventable disease, particularly in North America where we have publicly-funded vaccination programs. I find it so sad to hear from the World Health Organization that about 400 children worldwide are dying each day from the measles. This doesn’t need to happen.
So how do parents balance their fears of vaccination with their desire to protect their children?
First, we need to understand that these fears are being fueled by a small number of adults who are vocally opposed to vaccinations. The vast majority of people vaccinate their kids.
To not vaccinate is to be in the minority.
In this same vein, it is helpful to understand that there is a difference between a skeptic and a denialist. A skeptic is someone who will question accepted opinions, look for different sides to the issue and critically consider the information. A “denialist” is someone who refuses to accept a concept, despite overwhelming evidence; no amount of information or discussion will change their mind. Someone who is opposed to vaccinations is doing so despite overwhelming evidence of their safety and effectiveness.
Denialists will fit information into the constraints of their beliefs, regardless of how irrational that might be. They also change their argument on the fly to support their personal views, ignoring things that have been de-bunked. My husband said it’s like playing whack-a-mole: as soon as one argument is proven false, they look for another to replace it.
So what do you say to a parent who does not vaccinate their children and makes you feel badly for considering vaccinations for your family?
I speak a lot about how our “reptilian brain” can be triggered in less than a second, getting our bodies ready to fight or run before we’ve had a chance to calmly reel in that immediate reaction. I ask parents to imagine this response like an irritated cobra—you wouldn’t provoke it, would you?
The subject of vaccination emotionally triggers the parents who are adamantly against it, some of whom I've spoken to personally. I recommend not engaging in an argument with someone who is so triggered and thus unable to rationally consider the other side. If they are absolutely anti-vaccination, then their mind is made up and nothing you can say will likely change their way of thinking.
In order to not “provoke the cobra” in the other person, I suggest saying something like this: “I understand you have made your choice. I will make my decision after I have carefully considered the information on my own.” You are validating that you have heard that person without judging him or her; you've let them know you wish to consider this further, and at the same time, you are not requesting them to back up their stance.
If you have already vaccinated your kids, remember again that you are in the majority, and there is absolutely no reason to feel badly about doing so! You can try simply stating, “Based on the advice of the scientific and medical community, and the evidence of vaccine effectiveness and safety, I have chosen to vaccinate my children. I hope you can respect that.” When one is vaccinated, not only is the shot protecting the one receiving it, but also the household and the community are protected as well.
Here’s a little trick: talking quietly and softening your eyes can help someone hear you better.
Rather than trying to have a rational discussion with a denialist, our energies are best spent supporting skeptical parents who are unsure and feel afraid of vaccinating their children, yet are still open to examining sound information. The unfortunate reality is that there is no "fence" when it comes to childhood vaccination. When parents are uncertain, the default is to delay the vaccinations, which is the risky position to take.
The bottom-line with vaccines is twofold. First, vaccines are incredibly effective and are the epitome of preventive medicine. No intervention has been as successful in preventing illness and death. Second, they are incredibly safe. They are used worldwide, tested vigorously before coming to market, and are continually monitored for adverse effects. After millions of doses administered, there is no more studied intervention.
Getting your family immunized is an important part of creating a foundation for a healthy life. If you’re on the fence about immunizing, here’s the information you need to make an informed decision for your family.