Resistance to vaccines is not new. Starting with the first vaccine developed in the late 1700s/early 1800s for smallpox through current times, people have resisted vaccines.
“What we are looking at today is not new,” said Paul A. Offit, MD, director of the Vaccine Education Center and attending physician in the Division of Infectious Diseases at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. “It is historic, but the good news is that I think there is a path forward.”
The path forward he suggests lies in understanding the historical resistance to vaccines and the reasons behind the resistance. Calling this a “war on vaccines,” Offit described a number of issues related to the fight around vaccines such as the whooping cough vaccine and measles/mumps/rubella vaccine. These issues inform what is going on today, he said.
Offit spoke during a session at the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) 2019 National Conference and Exhibit ion in New Orleans, Louisiana, on Sunday, October 27, titled “Communicating the science of vaccines to parents, the public, and the media.” The bulk of his talk centered on the current resistance to vaccines. He underscored 2 groups of people who primarily make up the resistance: vaccine-hesitant parents and antivaccine parents or conspiracy theorists.
Underlying the resistance in both groups, he said, is fear. “People are compelled by fear more than reason,” he emphasized. “I don’t think people fear the diseases anymore and so they fear other things, such as misconceptions about vaccines.”
As an example, Offit pointed to the lack of resistance to the polio vaccine despite the real tragedy that occurred in 1955: Using a bad batch of the vaccine, 120,000 children inadvertently were inoculated with a live polio virus that caused short-lived polio in 40,000 children, permanent paralysis in 164, and death in 10. “When you fear the disease more than the vaccine, you are willing to accept the safety issues,” Offit said.
Fear of vaccine-preventable diseases no longer motivates people. “People don’t fear diseases such as flu and human papillomavirus (HPV), but they are wrong not to fear them,” he said, pointing out that the flu has killed more people than all other vaccine-preventable diseases combined.
The fear motivating the 2 groups of people he sees as the main resistors to current vaccines he suggests is different. For the first group, the vaccine-hesitant parents, he emphasized their true hesitancy about the vaccines because they are not as compelled and fearful of the diseases themselves. Social media plays a role in spreading bad information that is quick and easy to access.
Underlying the fear of the antivaccine group, Offit said, is conspiratorial thinking. “They believe there is a conspiracy to hide the truth and that the pharmaceutical industry is behind the conspiracy.”
Although he said that there is little one can do to convince the antivaccine people of the value of vaccines, Offit underscored the need for compassionate and compelling education of the vaccine-hesitant group. “I think information is of value to people who are receptive to information,” he said.