Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Telling a Better Story, Telling the True Story

I have heard the success of the anti-vax movement described as a victory based on the fact that they tell a better story.

I take that to heart.

The truth is that the most persuasive, effective means of communication among parents is not the research paper, it’s not the newspaper, it’s not even the pediatrician: it is the anecdote. It is the story shared between parents. It's how we learn how to soothe a fussy baby. It's how we figure out which baby bottles work best. It's how we know what kind of diapers to use, what day cares or preschools to try. It's often how we choose our pediatricians. Anti-vax activists, having no science to lean on, have wisely chosen to utilize the anecdote to keep parents from vaccinating. Let me give you an example. 

They tell parents this: My son was a bubbly, happy one-year-old. Then he had his MMR vaccine and the next morning he was autistic. 

It’s an excellent story. It's a horrifying story. It suggests a kind of dark, chaotic danger at the end of a needle. And it has worked. It doesn’t matter that it’s not backed up by science or fact. Most scientific debates have a healthy amount of replicable research on both sides. Not this one. And still, this anecdote has resonated across the country.

The medical community and public health authorities have been slow to respond, not because they're slow, but because they have been unable to understand why firm science and the reassurances of replicable science, clinical trials, and wide-ranging research has not quelled this fear. The anecdote is anathema to the medical community, which is why it hasn’t occurred to them, until recently, to use it as a tool in this fight.

 It’s time for pro-vax parents to begin telling their anecdotes. We have an advantage because we have anecdotes—and we have science to back it up. It’s a powerful combination, and it's time to put it to use.

Many people have asked me why, as a parent who vaccinates, I care about immunizations as much as I do. The answer is easy. I live with the guilt of having put my son at risk, for three months, of contracting a potentially debilitating, deadly disease because of a very sophisticated, well-told lie I discovered during my "research" on the internet as a new mom. My son was set to get his MMR vaccine at twelve months. I delayed it until he was fifteen months. And if I had not had my own come-to-Jesus moment during those three months, realizing that my son could die because of an unfounded fear I had of vaccines, I can’t tell you when I would have vaccinated him. In those three months, he could have been one of the children infected with measles. He could have been hospitalized. He could have died. And it would have been my fault for basing a decision on a story that I’d been told, one that had no basis in fact. It would be impossible to continue living.

When I realized this—luckily not too late-- I got angry, the same way I’ve been angry at lies that affect my life in the past. For several years, I was a journalist who focused on corporate misdeeds; I took issue with pharmaceutical companies, how many of them paid for research to show their products were harmless. But none of the machinations I investigated as a journalist can compare to the outright fabrications I’ve come across in this anti-vax movement, which targets vulnerable new parents who want nothing more than to keep their children from harm.

When the public health authorities and pediatricians challenge the claims, they are, unfortunately, unconvincing. And it's not their fault. The anti-vax movement has sowed suspicion among parents of a doctor’s true motives. For doctors who have seen vaccine-preventable diseases ravaging a child's body, or even killing a child, vaccines are a no-brainer. I think very few of them have ever googled “vaccines” and “vaccine safety” to see what, exactly, it is that parents find when they do this search—as ALL of them do. If they did this, they would know what they are dealing with and they could address it head on.

It's time for parents to begin working with medical providers and the public health authorities to reframe this discussion and to harness the power of storytelling. New parents are also in desperate need of context and perspective. They need to know that a breastfed baby gets seven times more aluminum in the first six months of breastfeeding than she'll receive in the whole course of childhood vaccines. They need to know that vaccines have side effects and potential complications--that are as similar in the former and rare in the latter as any number of commonly prescribed medications.

An example: My one year old daughter was wheezing after having a cold for a few days. I took her into Urgent Care. The doctors became concerned that she had pneumonia. Turns out, she had bacterial pneumonia and she was hospitalized. I grew terribly afraid. Here was this impossibly tiny child on my lap, with an oxygen mask on, dealing with a serious infection. “We’ll need to give her a shot of antibiotics,” the doctor said. “It burns a little; it’s not comfortable.”

Did I think twice?


Side effects include much the same side effects as a vaccine. Did I think twice?


Now, if I had looked up antibiotics on Google before deciding to let my daughter have this shot, as I did before scheduling my son's vaccines, I would have discovered an FDA report that read: “Increased risk of death with Tygacil antiobiotic compared to other antibiotics used to treat similar infections.” Would I have hesitated to let her have the shot? Probably.

But I didn’t have that luxury. Her increasing illness and the possibility that it, itself, could lead to death, trumped all of that. The thought that I would deny my child a medicine that could ease her suffering, possibly keep her from getting worse, never crossed my mind. To do otherwise would have been criminal. I wonder if I would have even been allowed to leave the clinic without it.

And yet a vaccine is just as important as this shot my daughter had. The difference is that your child is not yet sick; you are protecting the child from becoming sick. And so the impetus is not there. I often ask vax-hesistant parents if they were in my situaton, with a child suffering, if they would have refused the antibiotic shot because there were risks involved. No one has said yes.  

Let's start telling our own stories. Let's tell parents why we vaccinate. Let's step into this dialogue, let's take it over. Let's start telling the better story. The true one.

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