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There is much to celebrate during National Infant Immunization Week this year. More than 90% of children 19 to 35 months have received all the recommended doses of vaccines for their age against polio, measles, mumps, rubella, chicken pox, and hepatitis B — and more than 80% have received all the recommended protection against diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis, pneumococcus, and Haemophilus influenzae.
But there are also reasons to be concerned. Only 72% have had all the recommended vaccines, which means one in four children is missing at least one. Even more concerning, studies show that there are geographic clusters of underimmunized or unimmunized children — and it’s within these clusters that vaccine-preventable diseases can sprout up, and spread, quickly.
Vaccines save lives. They have dramatically decreased the incidence of many diseases that used to cause real harm and even death. Illnesses that used to be dreaded are now becoming almost forgotten. But vaccines don’t work if children don’t get them.
Here are three ways we can work together to save more lives:
1. Make sure that all children have access to health care. It isn’t just vaccine hesitancy that gets in the way of vaccination. For many families, it’s more about not having a doctor nearby — or not having health insurance or other means of paying for health care. While there are programs that help with the cost of the vaccines themselves, they don’t cover the cost of the doctor’s visit and other well-child care that usually comes along with vaccines. Health care access and coverage is important for all aspects of child health, of course — vaccines are just one part, but an important part.
2. Make sure that all parents have access to accurate information about vaccines. There are a lot of rumors out there, such as that vaccines cause autism (they don’t) or that spacing out vaccines is better for babies (it’s not). With the rise of the Internet, it has become easier for misinformation to spread — and once parents are afraid, that can be hard to undo. There is lots of good scientific evidence to show that vaccines are both effective and safe, and we need to do a better job of getting that information to parents. It’s not always possible to have a really full discussion at a 15-minute well-child visit, so we need to think more creatively about how we can proactively get information to parents — and make better use of social media and other communities to spread facts instead of rumors.
3. Make sure that we understand the concerns of vaccine-hesitant parents. Research on vaccine hesitancy has shown that there are lots of different reasons why parents worry about or refuse vaccines, and just telling people it’s a good idea isn’t going to do the trick. For example, an interesting study published in Nature Human Behavior used moral foundations theory to explore how parents make decisions about vaccines, and found that vaccine-hesitant parents placed a high value on personal liberty and purity. That means that arguments about avoiding harm (by vaccinating against harmful diseases) or fairness (saying it’s not fair to put others at risk by not vaccinating) simply weren’t as important to them as their arguments that forcing them to vaccinate violates their personal liberty, or that vaccine additives are impure (this is another area where misunderstandings are common). If we want to be successful, we need to take the time to understand and address all the reasons behind vaccine hesitancy.
Ultimately, we all want the same thing: to keep our children healthy and safe. Working together, we can make that happen.