A New Conversation: Vaccines Change the World

In the interest of promoting more robust discourse around the importance of regular vaccinations for serious but preventable contagious conditions, MHA@GW is hosting a guest post series in honor of National Immunization Awareness Month (NIAM). Throughout the month of August, we’re featuring pieces from thought leaders and advocates in the field who were asked to write about the importance of immunization in 2015. Read more about the project in our introduction post.

By Jackie Kaufman, Vaccine Ambassadors

After reading the first draft of my blog to be featured during National Immunization Month, I polled the group around the room for their response. There were the obligatory nods of the head and favorable comments, but it was obvious that this piece had not wowed them. Okay, I get that. We all agreed that it was factual, informative, and a bit preachy, but lacked a certain draw. Finally in an effort to be sympathetic to the writer (me), our newest intern sheepishly mumbled, “It’s just kind of a dry subject.”

This seemingly innocuous comment struck me. Now it was my turn to shake my head. How does a technology responsible for saving millions of lives become dry? However unsettling her words were, there was truth in what she spoke and sadly I knew she was not alone in this thought. I could chalk up some of her views to age. She was not old enough to remember the terror that many parents and children felt as the summer months approached, and with them, the fear of crippling polio. I know that age was only one factor. I myself was a generation removed from the epidemic and therefore had no real appreciation of what that must have been like to live with the dread that every body ache might be a sign of something worse.

True, the absence of disease in our society has made us complacent. Without a direct memory of these events it is difficult to put this medical marvel into context. What many of us fail to realize is that our experience is the exception and not the rule. In many areas of the world where vaccinations have not become “routine,” parents and children continue to fear the very diseases we have forgotten. In 2013, it was estimated that 145,000 people (mostly children younger than 5) died from measles, a disease that has been preventable for over a half a century.

To be honest, it is difficult to find something fresh that hasn’t been said over and over again, whether it is a rehash of vaccine safety (myths versus facts), Andrew Wakefield’s debunked paper, conspiracy theories, or the motivation of big pharma. It occurred to me that we are continually taking the field in a defensive position, pushing back the false claims rather than creating our own narrative. We need to do better in conveying the amazing impact that vaccines have had and continue to have on our world. Parents, health care providers, and the media (no, there are not two sides) should resound with a common voice. Let’s move beyond the tired old arguments and focus on our messaging. The facts are the facts, but the question is how do we convey them so that they are meaningful and effective?

I do not think it is hyperbole to say that vaccines are a scientific wonder. One only needs to look at the number of lives saved since the introduction of vaccines to have an awe-inspired appreciation for how this science has changed our world. Vaccine Ambassadors is committed to ensuring that every person everywhere has the same access to this phenomenal achievement in public health.

Still a little preachy? Perhaps. A little less dry? I hope so.

Jackie Kaufman, executive director of Vaccine Ambassadors, has been involved in health care for over 25 years. She received her Bachelor of Science in Nursing and Master of Nursing from the University of Washington. Her clinical and research background include critical care, organ transplantation and donation, HIV, and global infectious disease.