Physicians Must Refute 'Alternative Facts' About Vaccines
Some of my most vivid childhood memories are of accompanying my father on house calls. Dad was also a family physician, and he would go just about anywhere in the rural counties surrounding our hometown. He would drive down gravel country roads and uneven dirt paths to reach his patients in need. In the days before cell phones, the Internet and GPS, we would often locate their homes only when a patient's relative flagged us down from the side of the road.
Photo by Charles Farmer/CDCPeople in Columbus, Ga., wait in line for polio vaccination during the early days of the National Polio Immunization Program.
Once we visited the community of Penderlea, N.C., which had been a wooded, undeveloped area in the county next to our hometown. Ground broke on the Penderlea Homesteads during the Great Depression as part of President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. These parcels of land were granted to families that settled there and farmed the land. The people were hard working, industrious, self-reliant and -- above all -- optimistic about their future in spite of the desperate circumstances that had led them there. The town was such a success that Eleanor Roosevelt came to tour the area. My mother vividly remembers attending a reception for the first lady during her visit.
My visit to Penderlea was memorable for a different reason. My father went there to administer the polio vaccine. In my memory, I can still see the long line of people that snaked around the wooden gymnasium at the center of the settlement. People were waiting patiently for the latest advance that medical science had to offer: a drop of vaccine administered on a sugar cube.
The citizens of Penderlea were particularly appreciative of the vaccine. So simple to give, yet it would prevent a health scourge that could lead to death or disability and rob them of their ability to be self-supporting. The possibility of contracting polio was a frightening prospect for many Americans of that era, but especially for these families who had worked so hard to rise above difficult circumstances.
Fast forward to the present, and it seems unfathomable that many people today are ignoring at great peril the proven science behind immunizations. A war on science is being waged across our land in many forms, but none with more potentially devastating immediate consequences than the refusal to vaccinate ourselves and our children against infectious disease.
It is also disturbing to see the many high-profile individuals who have taken up this misguided cause. Through the Internet and social media, "alternative facts" about vaccines have spread almost as virulently as the diseases vaccines are intended to prevent.
As family physicians, we cannot allow this to continue. The AAFP recently joined with more than 350 other organizations in sending a letter to the president outlining our concerns. The letter points out that "vaccines have been part of the fabric of our society for decades and are one of the most significant medical innovations of our time."
The refusal to vaccinate has disastrous implications for our patients and for the health of the public, but it seems that for those who argue against vaccines, facts have become inconvenient truths.
Perhaps as a society, we have forgotten the real improvements that vaccines have brought to our lives. Or perhaps it is out of complacency that we have avoided vaccinating our children. As family physicians, we must continue to work in our communities, states and nation to counter these notions.
The AAFP, CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics have developed free resources to help physicians and their staff have conversations with parents about the safety and efficacy of vaccines.
I recently saw a descendant of one of the original early settlers of Penderlea in my office. She came for her well-child visit, and it was my honor to give her the polio vaccine. As I administered the vaccine, it brought back memories of that line at the gymnasium many years ago.
Mott Blair, M.D., is a member of the AAFP Board of Directors.
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