Teenology 101: Vaccine hesitancy

Vaccines have been a topic of much debate lately: Do they help? Are they safe? Should I vaccinate my child?

I can recall a recent visit with a 16-year-old girl. She had a question about the HPV vaccine. She’d seen a commercial and was interested in learning more. We discussed the risks and benefits as well as the purpose of the vaccine. After she’d asked a series of very insightful and thought out questions, she decided she wanted to proceed with starting the vaccination series (the Gardasil vaccine is a series of 3 shots over 6 months). We brought her mother in to talk about starting the series and her mother hesitated. Like any caring parent, she wanted to be certain her daughter was safe. Their pediatrician hadn’t discussed the vaccine and she’d read on social media that it had potential side effects. At the end of our visit, my patient still wanted the vaccine, but her mother wanted to think about it.

Vaccine hesitancy has become a common phenomena in clinical practice. Pediatricians are the first line in providing information to parents, but they are not the only source of information. As scientists, we are doing a fairly poor job of presenting the facts in terms that non-scientists can understand and I’d argue that we’re doing an even poorer job of presenting those facts in locations that parents may look to for information (such as on Twitter, Facebook, blogs, community newsletters, parenting sites, etc). For good and bad, there are many many sources of information on vaccines that parents come across. It can be extremely challenging to know who to trust! In this post I wanted to provide some quick facts for parents and highlight some reputable sources of information.

Quick facts:

If we stopped immunizing, vaccine preventable diseases would make a comeback. In many communities, vaccine preventable diseases are causing epidemics (measles, mumps, whooping cough).

Many diseases that used to be a common source of disability, hospitalization, or death are now rarely seen because of vaccinations (examples include polio, diptheria, haemophilus influenza meningitis; I went through four years of medical school and six years of additional training and have never seen a case of any of these diseases).

Vaccines are recommended at certain ages on purpose. For many of the vaccines, the immune response works best at certain ages. This means that our bodies make protective antibodies the best when we get the vaccine around a certain age. Vaccines are also recommended at certain ages to prevent the worse disease in the most vulnerable (such as in infancy and childhood).

Three immunizations are recommended during adolescence (for those who received all other required immunizations as children): 1. Tdap (tetanus, diptheria, acellular pertusis) 2. Meningococcal conjugate 3. HPV (3 doses)

  • In 2012, coverage for Tdap was about 85 percent, for meningococal conjugate 74 percent, and for HPV it was 7 percent in males and 33 percent in females for all three doses.
  • Despite only 33 percent of females received the HPV vaccine, there was a 56 percent decrease in the HPV strains it protects against and a 36 percent decrease in genital warts.

Reputable sources of information on vaccines: