As a general pediatrician, I talked to a lot of vaccine hesitant families, and I found that the worst stereotypes generally didn’t apply. Anti-vaxxers on the whole are people who actually do love their kids; they’ve just been horribly misled by misinformation on the internet. Some pediatric practices won’t see parents who won’t vaccinate their kids, and I respect that— but I did, and I found I could convince over 90% of the vaccine hesitant parents I saw to start vaccinating their kids. A small number of them refused even to listen to a single word, no matter how politely phrased. But that is rare.
Very nearly all the time, they were willing to have a conversation with a doctor who took a non-confrontational approach. And after a long conversation, nearly all of them came to see that vaccination really was in their kids’ best interests, and they gave consent to start vaccination that visit.
I’d just talk about the horrible diseases we were vaccinating against, and the fact that they are still out there and we’re having outbreaks right here in America. I talked about deafness and brain damage and death. I’d talk about the fact that the supposed vaccine-autism paper had been falsified, and the Lancet had retracted it. I’d talk about the fact that I know a lot of doctors, and there’s not one of them who vaccinates their own kids on anything other than the regular schedule. I’d point out that, after only the families of children with autism, nobody is more afraid of autism than pediatricians because we see everything the families go through in a society that doesn’t understand autism. And pediatricians vaccinate their own children with no fear.
It always wrecked my schedule, but it was worth it.
More than anything, I think it was the sheer amount of time that I was willing to spend with them that changed their minds, and the fact that I talked to them without judgment. One mom who was initially scared of getting her kids vaccinated said, “They just make you feel like a bad parent,” and I reassured her, “You’re not a bad parent. Dr. Wakefield was a bad doctor.” Anger at the anti-vax problem is a justified response, but we should direct it at the people who propagate this stuff.
It’s impossible to have these conversations online. I wouldn’t even attempt it. And with the industrial grade misinformation and disinformation now being pushed by malicious actors online, and with an entire major political party backing this cruel disavowal of reality for political points, it’s obvious that the prominent vaccine expert Dr. Peter Hotez is right: it’s not enough for individual doctors, or even healthcare professional organizations, to speak out. We need a major governmental offensive against vaccine disinformation—and I feel justified in using the word “disinformation,” which implies malicious intent, because Putin is deliberately pushing this with the intention of weakening America and our allies. Even a major national figure like Dr. Hotez, who is himself a parent of an adult child with autism, can’t push back hard enough to counter a narrative pushed by a well organized, well funded propaganda campaign. Neighborhood doctors sure as hell can’t.
I was a dab hand at this kind of persuasion while in practice, and these days even I would be toast. Doctors and nurses need help.