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As a pediatrician, I know that many times when parents are hesitant about vaccines, it’s because of something they read on the Internet. Sadly, much of the anti-vaccine information that is out there is either misinformation or misconstrued information — but once parents have read it, it’s not always easy to convince them that it’s misinformation or misconstrued. I’ve often wished that we could find more ways to get good vaccine information on the Internet, and give parents a way to get their questions answered and concerns allayed there, rather than getting worried.
That’s exactly what researchers from Kaiser Permanente did, in a study recently published in the journal Pediatrics. They recruited women in their last trimester of pregnancy, and randomized them into three groups. One group was given access to a website with vaccine information that had a social media component that allowed them to comment and ask questions. Another group was given access to a website with vaccine information but no social media component. The third group was a “control” group, given the usual care and not given access to the website. They gave all the women a questionnaire to see how they felt about vaccines, and found that about 14% overall were “hesitant” about vaccines.
Of the women given access to a website (they used a login so that researchers could see if they used it), 35% visited it at least once. Interestingly, 44% of the vaccine-hesitant mothers visited, which is good news. We want vaccine-hesitant parents to look for information in good places. The mothers in the group that had a social media component generated 90 comments and questions. The majority of those comments and questions were directed toward the clinicians running the study, as opposed to between the women. They wanted to talk to the clinicians about their questions and concerns.
They followed the mothers until their babies were about 6 months (200 days) old to see if the babies got their vaccines, and if they got them on time. They found that 92.5% of the babies whose mothers had access to the website with social media were fully vaccinated, as opposed to 91.3% of the ones whose mothers just had website access, and 86.6% of those who got usual care.
The differences were small, it’s true, but having the ability to get information and ask questions had a statistically significant effect.
All parents want to do the right thing. They want their children to be healthy and safe. Parents who don’t vaccinate their children are worried that vaccines might hurt their child and might not work. The evidence shows abundantly that vaccines do work, that they do save lives, and that side effects are usually either minor or nonexistent. But that’s not always what parents hear or read.
Parents need and deserve good information, and they need and deserve the opportunity to talk about all of their concerns and ask all of their questions. In the setting of a busy pediatric practice, doctors don’t always have the time to sit, listen, answer questions, and discuss vaccines. We wish we always did, but the reality is that we don’t. But it’s not okay for doctors to simply say that we don’t have time. If we want to give parents what they need, and get more children vaccinated, we are going to have to come up with some creative solutions — like a website where parents can get information and share their worries and questions.
It’s also important that doctors fully realize just how much people rely on the Internet for health information, and take responsibility for either putting good information there themselves, or directing people to sites with good information.
Parents, and expectant parents, who have any questions or concerns about vaccines should let their doctor know. When we know before a visit, it’s easier for us to find ways to help. And as for sites with good information, here are my favorites: