The Best Defense is a Good Offense: Why Public Health Officials Need to Get Tough on Vaccination


Measles are preventable with vaccines so why are vaccination rates going down?/Dave Haygarth via Flickr

It’s a scary time for many parents and their children in Washington, Oregon, and New York, which are currently experiencing measles outbreaks. The vaunted herd immunity that has kept Americans safe for the past few decades is being eroded—via lower child vaccination coverage in communities throughout the US due to an increase in vaccination exemptions.

For years, fingers have been pointed at discredited doctor Andrew Wakefield for starting the spread of the now-debunked link between autism and the measles vaccine. Likewise, social media misinformation campaigns from so-called mommy blogs and anti-vaccination (often termed “anti-vaxxer”) activist groups have been effective in propagandizing pseudo-science ignorance among parents and politicians alike through websites, online ads, phony-expert panel talks, celebrity allies, online and in-person “word-of-mouth,” and aggressive political lobbying.

12 thoughts on “The Best Defense is a Good Offense: Why Public Health Officials Need to Get Tough on Vaccination

  1. Gentlemen, thank you for this timely post. My aunt died of measles in 1938 and my father almost did as well. Measles is serious and deadly. People seem to have become cavalier about these diseases. This is now a public health issue in need of attention.

    1. Thanks, Niran. I’m also amazed at how complacent the public health field has been on the issue of vaccination. They seem content to just sit back and not contribute to “fear-mongering”.

      I don’t know what they’re waiting for – we’re seriously at risk of things like polio coming back in places like Brazil. I’d saying we’re overdue for a little fear.

  2. Appreciate the dire situation, but I don’t agree that cheap propaganda should be counteracted with equally cheap propaganda, plus censorship.
    Public health entities can and should launch a campaign to INFORM people on the FACTS. People fall pray to anti-vaxxer histrionics because they lack the facts, such as research results. So, by all means go big and go creative (on TV during the Super Bowl would have been nice), but don’t stoop to psyops, because a) it’s disgusting, and b) it may have the opposite effect on people who can see through the BS.

    1. Appreciate your view, Margalit, but I hardly think that demonstrating the real effects of measles and childhood diseases equates histrionics. The problem is that facts can’t always fight feelings and visuals of the real, actual effects is not BS – it’s reality.

      1. Sure, if you want to put pictures of kids with measles, fine, but I think there’s a different thing playing out, and remember that at least in America the anti-vaxxers are otherwise pretty well educated.
        I don’t know about other people, but when confronted with autism and mercury and what have you, I don’t have a response at my fingertips. I don’t have studies and statistics off the top of my head to hurl back. All I can do is point to all my well-vaccinated kids and that’s not enough.
        I’m sure the CDC has the stuff somewhere, but the public doesn’t. I would make TV ads with factual stuff like that, dynamic graphs, crashing myths, talking squirrels, whatever, good music. Something memorable.
        Maybe some rich creative types can be convinced to organize a multi-channel campaign, seeing how they all love to throw money and talent around for useless virtue signaling projects….. 🙂

  3. we need to accept that the information model has changed irrevocably

    the old top down “The Surgeon General has determined ..” is broken

    – u will be challenged
    – people will accept laughable arguments
    – bad ideas will travel

    how u respond is everything, or more harm than good

  4. Say it again! Louder, for the people who are partially deaf thanks to measles.
    As someone who combats the misinformation on social media regarding vaccination (daily), this article highlights one of the major obstacles to promoting vaccine safety and efficacy: where are CDC, WHO, HHS? Where are the policy makers?
    If you take a look at the CDC and WHO Facebook pages, you will find that these organizations are great about posting articles, information, and links on immunization facts and statistics, but the comments, on every single post regarding vaccines, are a cesspool of anti-vaccine propaganda.
    Links to YouTube videos, sloppily done studies published in low/no impact predatory journals, retracted studies, articles from whale(dot)to, Learn the Risks, and NVIC- misrepresenting the findings of legitimate studies, and comments using cherry picked data from VAERS, the VICP, vaccine package inserts, and Supreme Court rulings. But you won’t find a single offical response from these pages. The comments giving incorrect information or linking to invalid sources are never deleted, and the handful of regular commenters posting this pseudoscientific nonsense are never muted.
    Very rarely will you see policy makers advocate for vaccination on social media or even in real life. Which, in my opinion, is understandable considering what anti-vaxxers do to any authority who speaks publicly in favor of vaccination. While their numbers are small, anti-vax “activists” are loud, and often the only ones heard when individual doctors, scientists, and policy makers speak to the importance of vaccination or attempt to introduce legislation that would mandate vaccines in certain circumstances.
    Something must be done, and I think it starts with public health agencies informing the general public that health and government officials need their support.
    Thank you for such a spot on call to action!

    1. I couldn’t agree more, Amber. As an MSN and Nurse Educator I’ve been fighting this battle along with my fellow RNs for nearly 5 years now, and I’ve been more than disappointed at the lack of response from the Surgeon General, CDC, and WHO. Whenever the CDC posts a piece regarding vaccines the AV crowd considers it a free for all. It’s high time the medical community comes together in a coordinated effort to put a stop to this dangerous nonsense.

    2. Thanks, Amber. I’m regularly amazed at the misinformation out there and how hard and passionately that it’s pitched. I think public health needs to take a good long look at its approach and stop pooh poohing effective communication strategies from other fields.

  5. Margalit, mercury has not been in the major vaccines for more than a decade and a half. I am actually a little disappointed by your response. There is NO link to autism. It is frankly ridiculous to even discuss. Autism is genetic and the studies show pregnant mothers taking antidepressants or even Tylenol during pregnancy are FAR MORE likely to have children with autism than anyone else.
    If people want to refuse immunizations for other reasons well, then let’s discuss it, but please do not propagate fear based on propaganda and false statements.
    I am probably overly sensitive on this subject — there is a child out there who may very soon be dying of measles in my state and in my county. It is too close to home right now.

    1. I know all that Niran, but my point is that I don’t know what to say to people that argue these things. I don’t know what to show them. I don’t know where the authoritative information resides. Sure, I can and I do say that the research shows all these things, but there is no easy to access and understand place to point people to.
      Anti-vaxxers are loud and can quote you all sorts of weird stuff, plus anecdotes, they heard about. Our side is not nearly as well equipped to have this debate.
      Now, you may dismiss the need to debate, because obviously they are crazy, but this approach has not been very effective, has it?
      There needs to be a well-funded and well-designed campaign to disseminate information. There isn’t one now, and that’s the point I am trying to make.

      1. thank you Margalit for clarifying. I thought for a moment I had entered an alternate universe because we tend to agree on most things. I feel so much better. Your point is well stated (now that I understand it). The approach I have taken for years is that I say my peace, and they say theirs. Then we follow the law, which currently allows personal exemptions. I don’t think arguing with anti-vaxxers advances our cause in any way. I do however find that once some anti-vax parents trust a physician, they are more willing to hear what I share with them and vice versa. it does increase the vaccination rates over time. Thanks again for making sense of your comments for me. 🙂

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