Vaccination Education: Increasing Vaccination Rates through Accurate Information and Primary Care

| November 15, 2011 | 0 Comments

Image courtesy of James Gathany on Wikimedia Commons

By Andrew Lea
Infectious Disease Columnist

In early October, Republican presidential hopeful Michele Bachman raised eyebrows after asserting that a “little girl suffered from mental retardation” after “a negative reaction to this potentially dangerous [HPV vaccine].”[1] Although health experts were quick to criticize this point as false rhetoric, Bachmann’s mistrust in vaccinations reflects a larger trend in the United States: many people are foregoing life-saving vaccinations on suspicions about vaccines’ safety.

This is not to say that all grounds for passing up vaccinations are unfounded. On the contrary, many people have reasonable religious, health, personal, or other reasons to not accept vaccinations. Others demonstrate a strong distrust in government vaccination campaigns, a behavior that has deep roots in a dark history of compulsory vaccination that forced millions to receive vaccinations regardless of objection.

In light of this historical backdrop, it may come as no surprise that each year thousands choose to forego immunizations due to reasons ranging from distrust in health organizations to concerns about the potential dangers of vaccination. But the refusal to receive vaccination can have damaging consequences to public health. In recent years, many preventable diseases have skyrocketed nationwide, reaching almost 100,000 cases of vaccine-preventable diseases in 2009.[2] Such diseases have resulted in the loss of millions of dollars and the deaths of thousands of people, many of whom chose not to be vaccinated on health or religious grounds.

The surge in preventable-disease rate is closely linked to a recent decrease in immunization rates among certain vaccines. Months ago, a report was released, showing the number of cases of the measles virus to be up 250% in the United States, a spike that stems from a precipitous drop in vaccination rates.[3],[4] Similarly, vaccinations rates for HPV, meningitis, hepatitis B, and other diseases have dropped in recent years.[5]

These falling vaccination rates and the resulting increase in cases present a challenge to healthcare officials. Such officials need to pinpoint how to improve vaccination rates among those who are increasingly deferring immunizations out of inconvenience, suspicion, or misconstrued information. In an increasingly populated environment, a single forgone vaccination can put hundreds, even thousands, at risk.

In the past, many countries and health organizations have waged top-down educational campaigns, marked by widespread television advertisements and large-scale announcements. Such techniques, however, have shown little success in addressing declining vaccinations rates. People are inherently distrustful of broad government-controlled campaigns. As a result, these methods can actually fuel decreasing rates of vaccination. A more intimate bottom-up approach, characterized by firsthand information passed from physicians and nurses to their patients, would cleanly circumvent this problem.

A bottom-up educational model can better equip people with the tools and accurate information to make the right vaccination decisions for themselves. All too often, patients hastily decline vaccinations before engaging in a real conversation with their primary care physicians and nurses about the benefits and risks of vaccination. Ensuring that primary care medical professionals take the time to spell out all of the details and dispel or ease common suspicions should help boost vaccination rates for preventable infectious diseases.

It seems obvious that education is the key: knowing the simple fact that, contrary to Bachmann’s claim, the HPV vaccine does not cause mental retardation will of course generate better vaccination decisions. But just as important as the information itself is the method by which this information is conveyed. Training and providing resources—both time and educational materials—for professionals to engage with patients on a one-on-one basis, though often overlooked, would be the most sensitive way to combat false rhetoric and moderate troubling immunization trends. In doing so, patients will obtain accurate information and the respect that they deserve in order to come to well-informed and responsible vaccination decisions.

 


[1] Burns, Alexander. “Bachmann: ‘Crying’ mother shared HPV story.” Politico. 13 Sep 2011

[2] “Preventable Diseases on the Rise As More Patients Defer, Refuse Vaccination.” The Gazette. Oct 2011.

[3] “US Measles Outbreak Sees Cases At 15-Year High.” The Huffington Post. 25 May 2011.

[4] Reinberg, Steven. “Unvaccinated Kids Behind Largest Measles Outbreak in Years.” ABC News. 20 Oct 2011

[5] Ramsey, Jason. “Vaccine decreases risk of meningitis even in adults.” Top News. Jan 2009.

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