Health expert advises sharing
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Dr. Ari Brown has simple advice for doctors dealing with vaccine-wary parents: "Sit down, shut up and share."
Brown, a pediatrician, author and frequent television health expert, said most parents are not opposed to vaccines for their children but want more information before doctors administer the shots.
Speaking to state doctors, nurses and public health officials on Thursday at the 2012 West Virginia Public Health Symposium, Brown said it is the medical community's job to ease parents' concerns.
"What you need to remember is they're not bad parents. They're scared parents," she told attendees during her keynote address.
Parents don't want to be scolded, she said, but want to feel like their doctors are listening to their concerns.
"A lot of people get inaccurate information and it makes them scared," she said. "You can talk about public health all day long, but what parents want to hear is what will protect their kid."
Brown said most doctors know the answer to parents' questions but do not know how to pass that knowledge along. She advised attendees to take time to listen to their patients, offer reliable information and practice what they preach.
She said the best way to comfort nervous parents is to say, "I vaccinate my own kids and protect them. I wouldn't do anything differently for yours."
"It's an emotional argument. It's one you can't argue with," she said.
She told attendees there are four types of parents: believers, relaxed parents, cautious parents and the unconvinced.
Believers will take any shot doctors offer while relaxed parents want some information about the shots but ultimately trust their doctor.
Cautious parents might be afraid of vaccines, Brown said, but are not necessarily opposed to them.
"These are not people you want to alienate because they'll just walk away," she said.
Brown said a common belief among vaccine-cautious parents is vaccines are dangerous, but that's not true. She said every vaccine on the market has been studied and, despite the claims of celebrity spokespeople like Jenny McCarthy, do not cause autism.
Some now-discredited studies in the 1990s linked mercury in vaccines with autism. Drug makers debuted mercury-free shots in 2001.
"If mercury in vaccines was the cause of autism, the rates (of autism) would be going down. They're not," she said.
Brown said some vaccine-cautious parents also believe their children do not need to be vaccinated because all their friends or classmates are vaccinated.
"Which couldn't be any further from the truth," Brown said. "Birds of a feather flock together."
Vaccine-free families usually congregate with other vaccine-free families. Brown said that is dangerous because most vaccine-preventable diseases like measles, mumps, rubella and whooping cough are still out there.
"The only disease we've completely eliminated with vaccines is smallpox. All these other diseases are alive and well," she said.
But Brown advised doctors not to waste time selling vaccines to "the unconvinced." Those parents do not believe in vaccines and will never get their children vaccinated.
"That group has always been there, and they'll always be there."
Brown said anti-vaccine movements are as old as vaccines themselves. When England began requiring smallpox vaccines for citizens in the 1820s, a group of citizens banded together to fight the compulsory vaccinations.
The recent anti-vaccine fervor began in the 1990s, Brown said.
The now-disgraced U.K. researcher Andrew Wakefield released a study in 1998 tying the measles, mumps, and rubella cocktail vaccine to autism. Then, in 1999, another now-discredited study linked Thimerosal, a preservative used in vaccines, to autism.
The medical community did not respond to those concerns until 2004, when the National Academy of Sciences' Institute of Medicine released its own report batting down those previous claims.
"The mistake we made was, we didn't have a good PR team to go in and do damage control," she said.
During her speech, Brown applauded West Virginia's school vaccine requirements, which forbid students from starting school, or entering seventh or 12th grade, without the necessary shots. She said between 96 and 99 percent of state schoolchildren are up to date on required vaccines because of those requirements.
West Virginia is one of two states that do not allow a "philosophical" exemption from vaccines. The state allows only medical exemptions from its school vaccine requirements, so if parents are ideologically opposed to shots, they have to home-school their children.
"That's a very progressive stance. That says West Virginians want their kids to be protected," Brown said.