Our back-to-school checklist has to include vaccine conversations

I have always loved back to school season. It’s full of excitement, whether it’s a new lunch box, a new supply of crayons, or the obligatory “first day of school” photo. It’s also full of promise: a new grade, new things to learn, and seeing school friends again. But that enthusiasm and promise depend on a healthy child, a healthy classroom, and a healthy community. That’s why, as a doctor, I remind parents that staying up to date on vaccines should be part of your to-do list.

I know that most parents value vaccines. I also know that some have attacked vaccines unfairly and inaccurately. The fact is that most Americans rely on routine vaccinations. Despite overwhelming support for routine vaccinations from doctors and parents, vaccination rates are declining. These two facts may seem contradictory. They are not. They are evidence of a worrying trend: a small minority voice is negatively influencing vaccine confidence through myths and fear.

I must emphasize the importance of talking about the value of vaccines. Many of us do not want to create conflicts. We remain silent because we fear that a conversation about vaccines could become contentious. Unfortunately, silence creates a void that can be filled with unreliable information. Parents with well-intentioned questions risk getting answers that are not supported by science. It is difficult to make an informed decision when you are afraid, confused, or have incorrect information.

For diseases that are easily transmitted from person to person, vaccine coverage must be very high to protect our children and our communities. Small drops in vaccination rates can affect our families. Recent data suggests that declining vaccination rates against diseases such as measles, mumps, rubella, and whooping cough may lead to outbreaks of these diseases.

The consequences of this decline in vaccination rates could be serious. As this downward trend has continued in recent years, I fear we will hear more whooping cough and see more devastating illnesses in our children. Have you ever seen a baby have difficulty breathing due to whooping cough? It is heartbreaking, it is a serious medical condition for the baby and it is preventable.

Speak out against misinformation

Vaccines are one of the biggest success stories in public health. The data shows that they are safe and save lives. Misinformation is eroding public trust in them. If we want vaccines to continue protecting our children, we must speak up and protect vaccines. As a pediatrician, I know firsthand how difficult this can be. But we must overcome our discomfort because these conversations are essential to the health and safety of our children.

As a community, we must collectively model positive vaccine conversations. Part of reframing the debate is ensuring everyone has the most up-to-date and accurate information.

To celebrate National Immunization Awareness Month, I urge you to take the following three steps.

  1. Inform: Learn more about vaccines and how to identify misinformation. Reputable places to learn more include:
  1. Engage: Express your support for vaccines. This can be as easy as mentioning how much better you feel about making sure your child is up to date on immunizations before school starts. Don’t ignore misinformation. Kindly and respectfully share what you know and how vaccines benefit your family’s health and safety. Conversations don’t have to be (nor should they be) debates. By sharing your knowledge and confidence regularly, you can help dispel myths and protect the health and safety of our families.
  2. Support: In some communities, vaccines are discussed at school board meetings and other settings. Appear! You don’t have to speak if you don’t feel comfortable, but your presence can send a powerful message.

So, this back-to-school season, let’s work together to advocate for vaccines. When we become more active in conversations about vaccines, we can frame the conversation with objective information. Together we can empower the majority to speak out and ensure vaccine conversations are free of misinformation.

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