Disadvantages of vaccine skepticism | Jul 26, 2017

While vaccines have always encountered criticism, negative commentary surrounding inoculation is especially damaging in today’s day and age. There are various reasons why people are concerned with these injection-based medications, ranging from fear of disease contraction to the thought that vaccines themselves are unnecessary.

According to a study from the Pew Research Center, 9 percent of Americans believe inoculation is potentially dangerous. The issue is one that crosses both party, sex and age lines:

  • 5 percent of Republicans and 9 percent of Democrats think vaccines are unsafe.
  • 15 percent of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 believed the same, compared to just 4 percent of individuals over the age of 65.
  • 11 percent of men and 8 percent of women also feel vaccines are risky.

This apprehension and anxiety can trace its roots back to the first vaccine ever created: That for smallpox in the late 18th century England. Although that inoculation was a true test – as Edward Jenner was completing the action based on a theory and informal public understanding – today’s vaccines have undergone years of examination and development to ensure they fulfill their purposes and are safe for every individual – regardless of country of origin.
Yet, skepticism still remains. This doubt is troubling for not only public health officials, but for the citizens themselves. Let’s look at the disadvantages that accompany vaccine distrust:

Exposure to harmful diseases

Parents want their children to be safe, yet 40 percent of those in the U.S. choose to either postpone or skip vaccines altogether, according to a study published in the journal Pediatrics. It’s understandable for families to be concerned about the number of shots their infants must undergo – and keep up with as they grow. The immunization schedule shared by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services can seem overwhelming at first, but it’s incredibly important for the safety of children and their peers.

The reason for the decision not to vaccinate or delay inoculation varies by family, but there are four common reasons for this choice, according to a study published in the Journal of Pediatric Pharmacology and Therapeutics:

1. Religious reasons.
2. Personal beliefs or philosophical reasons.
3. Safety concerns.
4. Desire for more information from healthcare providers.

No matter the logic behind this selection, failing to vaccinate children can expose them to harmful diseases that can be easily avoided with the aid of regular immunizations.

Return of eradicated illnesses

Serious strides have been made over the years to develop and update vaccines that are safe for people of all ages. As a result, many of the individuals making the decision to delay or skip immunizations have never experienced the effects of the illnesses of the past. The reason for this ability to live without interactions with these diseases is because they have been wiped out by the widespread use of vaccinations.

Take polio, for example. In the early 20th century, the disease was especially dangerous as it affected children and resulted in either paralysis or death. While various treatments were utilized at this time – from the iron lung to electrotherapy – it wasn’t until the first polio vaccine was announced in 1955 by developer Jonas Salk that the citizens of the U.S. were able to breathe a collective sigh of relief. The disease was officially eradicated in 1979, but polio can still be found around the world. Vaccinations ensure that any cases that are brought to the U.S. can quickly be identified and treated, without infecting a large number of the population in the process.

The creation of vaccines has resulted in the elimination of serious illnesses such as measles, mumps, pertussis, rubella, tetanus, diphtheria and hepatitis A and B, to name a few. The decision not to immunize children against these diseases increases the chance that these viruses will return, affecting generations to come.

Reduced community immunity

When the majority of a population has received the necessary immunizations, most individuals in that community will reap the benefit of being protected, as there is little chance for an outbreak. This situation is known as community, or herd, immunity, as it also safeguards those people who cannot be inoculated – pregnant women, infants of a certain age and people with compromised immune systems – from infectious diseases, according to the HHS.

While herd immunity is a good indicator of a community’s strength, its survival and continuation rely on individuals being vaccinated. According to the New York Times, 95 to 99 percent of people must be immunized against highly contagious diseases for community immunity to be effective. Logically, therefore, lack of inoculations will result in a reduction in this protection, leaving the especially vulnerable exposed to serious illnesses.

Differentiation of medical care

The decision not to vaccinate can also have serious implications when it comes to medical treatment for children. As the New York State Department of Health stated, healthcare providers will require information related to immunization status when working with patients – no matter if they are adults or children.

Doctors and nurses may then need to decide upon and carry out a different course of treatment than they would for inoculated people. These treatments may be less familiar to medical professionals, which could cause a delay and hesitation on the end of healthcare providers as they tend to be less experienced with these courses of action.

Treating unvaccinated patients is a challenging decision for healthcare facilities and their professionals. While physicians take an oath to care for the sick, they must juggle that duty with the need to protect others in their offices as well as the federally recommended immunization schedule.

Doctors most often face this struggle when an outbreak of an eradicated disease resurfaces. The December 2014 resurgence of measles that was traced to Disneyland resulted in the sickening of 147 people in the U.S. and 159 people in the Quebec, Canada. While the episode was finally declared over in April 2016, the surge of cases was largely due to lack of immunization against measles. This outbreak as well as another in Palatine, Illinois, caused doctors to revisit their family accommodations and decide to only treat families and children with adequate immunizations, according to The Chicago Tribune.

Children without the proper inoculations could face a differentiation in medical treatment that comes with its own concerns, but they may also encounter healthcare providers that won’t interact with them at all.

Susceptibility to long-term effects

Not only will unvaccinated individuals be exposed to harmful diseases, they may suffer from the long-term impacts of the outbreak once they’ve contracted the illness.

Measles, for example, may not seem like a serious issue in its earliest stages. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the disease can essentially cause the symptoms of the flu – fever, rash, runny nose, a cough and more. If not treated adequately, however, people may experience pneumonia, brain damage and even death. Immunizations protect individuals against enduring these long-term impacts, as well as the following that are common among other eradicated diseases:

  • Mumps: Deafness, inflammation of the brain, swelling of the testicles or ovaries.
  • Rubella: Women who get rubella during pregnancy could experience a miscarriage or deliver a child with serious birth defects.
  • Diphtheria: Paralysis, heart failure, serious breathing problems, death.
  • Hepatitis B: Cirrhosis, liver cancer or failure, death.
  • Pertussis: Difficulty breathing, seizures, brain damage, urinary incontinence, death.
  • Tetanus: Severe muscle spasms, breathing issues, death.

Vaccinations can help children and adults avoid the long-term complications and side effects that accompany these eradicated diseases.

Next steps for public health officials

The consequences that come with failing to – or delaying – vaccinations can be damaging to a person’s and community’s long-term survival and quality of life. Sticking to the predetermined immunization schedule developed by the CDC and approved by organizations such as the American Academy of Pediatrics and Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices is recommended by medical professionals across the country. This action will ensure individuals and their families receive the best form of care possible while also reducing their chance of contracting serious, and sometimes fatal, illnesses.

Public health officials play an important role in the reduction of vaccine skepticism. These professionals have a duty to educate community members of the advantages of immunizations as well as the potential dangers that accompany lack of inoculation. In addition, public health leaders will need to remain updated on any recent public criticism of vaccines so those issues can then be reasonably and logically explained, while also quelling people’s fears and concerns.

If public health leaders encounter individuals who decided not to immunize their children, it’s vital for officials to relay the risks and responsibilities that come with that choice. Educational sessions will need to teach people how to recognize symptoms of serious outbreaks and the necessary steps that must be taken in these cases – informing medical staff caregivers, schools and childcare facilities of vaccine history. No matter people’s decision – whether to vaccinate their child or not – it is the responsibility of public health officials to make sure these individuals have the most updated and relevant knowledge at their disposal.

Earning a Master’s of Public Health from the University of Arizona will equip public health leaders with the skills and knowledge they need to be a true ally to their community and its members. With this education and experience, officials can provide the necessary education people need to make an informed decision for themselves and their peers.

Recommended Readings:
Measles eradicated from the Americas, WHO confirms
Careers in health promotion – your options with an MPH