Vaccine unease: From the poliovirus to COVID-19

Published: Oct. 28, 2021 at 7:15 PM EDT
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - By this time next week Vermont 5 to 11-year-olds could be cleared to get the COVID vaccine. Decades ago, families would hurry to be first in line in the name of public health, but now many are hanging behind. Our culture largely accepts routine childhood vaccinations for measles, whooping cough, and other diseases, so then why are some still struggling to trust the COVID shot?

“The word fear really rings true. People were very, very frightened,” said Leslie Williams of Colchester.

When Williams contracted polio as a child in 1954, her family was forced to quarantine. The community was terrified their kids might catch the contagious virus that crippled or killed tens of thousands. Williams was in a coma for several days at the hospital, though she harbors memories of the horror. “I do remember seeing one of my parents with a mask and a gown, because they had to be all dressed up before they could come in the room,” she said.

Luckily, Williams walked away from the deadly disease. In the early 1950s, polio outbreaks caused more than 15,000 cases of paralysis each year. Then, in 1955, a new vaccine promised panicked parents protection. “There was like a mad rush to get vaccinated. We couldn’t wait to get vaccinated, everybody couldn’t wait to get vaccinated,” Williams recalled.

Three decades later, polio was eliminated from the United States and there hasn’t been a case in the country since. “And that’s solely a result of successful vaccination,” said Dr. Benjamin Lee, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at the UVM Medical Center. He says the majority of his young patients receive all the usual immunizations, including measles, mumps, rubella, diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis, meningococcal, and polio, to name a few -- all severe illnesses we rarely see in developed countries today. “Our experience with other routine childhood vaccinations resoundingly tell us that vaccines work, they’re safe, and they’re effective.”

Still, Lee says an increasing number of families aren’t convinced by that evidence. About half of his patients’ parents have questions and concerns about the COVID vaccine, worried their child could get seriously sick from the shot. And Lee says that that ratio is reflected throughout the country. “What we know -- certainly across not just the United States but across the world as well -- vaccine hesitancy is becoming an ever more urgent problem,” he said

He believes people have grown accustomed to protection against deadly diseases and perhaps have lost sight of the significant scientific progress that got us here.

The onslaught of the pandemic isn’t when confidence plummetted. Around 2000, a fraudulent research paper suggested a link between autism and the MMR vaccine. In the years since, postmodern society’s perception of vaccinations has shifted, in part, due to government mandates, political polarization, geographic differences, and racial disparity.

“People’s questioning of science isn’t all or none. People may have questions about one vaccine but have gotten all the rest,” said Dr. Jan Carney, associate dean for public health and health policy at UVM’s Larner College of Medicine. But she says reluctance really took root in the age of the internet, which is probably why vaccine hesitancy rates are highest among younger populations. “Being informed patients, that’s a really good thing, because if you’re using good sources of information, you can be a better partner to improve your own health and the health of your family. One of the keys is -- where are you getting that information?”

Carney says a knowledgeable patient turns to accredited health care websites rather than social media sources, which can be inaccurate and unreliable. “I think that it’s important to look at today’s events in a historical context but not be afraid to try to change them -- because we can,” she said.

People like Leslie Williams, who’ve lived through both periods of history, have a strong opinion on the matter. “To me, it’s baffling why a parent would choose to not have their child vaccinated and put that child at risk, and then put all the other children in the classroom at risk,” Williams said.

Experts say it’s important to distinguish vaccine-hesitant parents from those who don’t vaccinate their kids at all. They say there will always be a core group of holdouts, whether for religious or social reasons. Medical professionals say their goal is to keep that group from growing. One critical strategy to combat vaccine hesitancy is helping people develop a solid, personal relationship with their health care provider.

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