A Rising Tide of Vaccine Hesitancy

To many doctors’ dismay, vaccine hesitancy, the delay or refusal of immunizations, is on the rise. According to a recent report published by the American Academy of Pediatrics, doctors are seeing more children whose parents have decided to forgo one or more of the recommended vaccinations. From 2006 to 2013, the amount of doctors that saw parents refuse at least one vaccination rose from 75% to 87%.

So, what’s the cause for this rising tide and what are physicians to do?

According to doctors who were surveyed in the report, vaccine-hesitant parents hold a myriad of concerns. From the fear of pain, too many shots, inadequate testing of vaccines, and a general mistrust of health professionals, there are a number of reasons preventing parents from vaccinating their children. Fortunately, the fallacy that vaccines cause autism has lost some foothold among parents recently, with doctors seeing a 10% decrease in the belief in the past few years. However, a new misconception has gained traction in its wake. Today, the most common reason cited for vaccine hesitancy is that parents view vaccines as simply unnecessary.

Based on the AAP report, parents now appear to doubt the reality of disease prevalence and vaccine effectiveness. The success of vaccines has clearly been its own enemy. Vaccines tend to have a cyclical effect on public perception of diseases, according to the report. When a disease spreads, vaccination rates skyrocket. Conversely, when high use of vaccines successfully combats the disease, the disease and its vaccinations are viewed as obsolete. It is during this period, when the vaccination rates drop that outbreaks arise.

Instead of waiting for another outbreak to drive more parents to choose vaccination, healthcare professionals need to be the driving force by communicating the benefits of vaccinations even when diseases remain uncommon. Physicians can directly combat misguided beliefs and perceptions by counseling their patients and parents about adherence to the immunization schedule. This discussion should begin even as early as the first prenatal visit. The AAP also recommends that doctors tailor their counseling to patients’ unique challenges and concerns and give personal anecdotes of why their own families choose to vaccinate to battle the mistrust that many parents hold. In a statement that accompanied the report, the pediatric group assures that these and other strategies can temper concerns and hesitancy among parents.

If all else fails, physicians can choose to dismiss patients from their practice. The AAP defended the choice noting that continuing to treat a patient whose parents refuse to follow the vaccination schedule facilitates unhealthy habits and puts other patients and staff at risk, but patient dismissal should always be a last resort.

As more diseases become uncommon thanks to the effectiveness of vaccinations, patient education is critical. Physicians have to continue to advocate for adherence to vaccination schedules among patients to keep both children and the general population healthy.