The conversation about vaccination rates needs an injection of empathy

Why parents shouldn't shoulder all the blame for rising rates of measles.

The conversation about vaccination rates needs an injection of empathy

As parents we just want to do what is best for our kids, and when it comes to the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine, parents who choose to give it to their children and those who don't are both making the choice they feel is the best one for their child.

And while it is true that, worldwide, measles cases have nearly doubled in a year, and that The World Health Organization says vaccine hesitancy is a threat to global health, it's also true that the conversation about vaccination in America can be divisive—and places way too much blame on parents who have the best intentions.

"We have to come from a place of empathy," says Rachel Alter, a a research assistant at the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia's Earth Institute. According to Alter, the vast majority of people who choose not to vaccinate "are really just trying to do what's best for their families and their kids," and have often made their decision based on false information that has been amplified by celebrities, internet communities and problematic algorithms.

The impact of discredited former doctor Andrew Wakefield's fraudulent 1998 research linking autism to vaccination is incredible. Though it has been thoroughly debunked, it has created a far-reaching, self-replicating spider web of misinformation that's easy to get stuck in.

"Just being exposed to that information can create a degree of hesitancy," Tim Caulfield, a professor at the University of Alberta and Canada research chair in health law and policy, recently told CBC's The Current.

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It's easy to understand why so many parents are hesitant about vaccines, but as measles rates climb, researchers, pediatricians and technology companies are hoping to make things clearer.

Recently, a massive study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine further disproved the supposed link between autism and the MMR vaccine, finding children vaccinated against measles, mumps and rubella are actually 7% less likely to develop autism than children who don't get vaccinated.

That study was released just as the American Academy of Pediatrics sent a series of letters to Google, Facebook and Pinterest seeking help in its quest to combat online vaccine misinformation.

Soon afterward Facebook announced plans to reduce the reach of false information about vaccines on Facebook and Instagram. Facebook's announcement came just weeks after Pinterest announced it was temporarily banning the topic of vaccination from search results until it could come up with a solution to deal with false information in pins.

Google has also taken steps on YouTube to combat misinformation, first by demonizing channels spreading false information about vaccines, and by developing a fact-checking feature to counter misinformation in videos.

These changes are welcome, but it's important to remember that parents have been hearing the echoes of bad science for 20 years now. They gained legitimacy through what Caulfield describes as a false balance in the media, in which unproven and debunked claims about vaccinations have been given equal time to credible science.

According to Caulfield, most parents who don't vaccinate aren't actually in the 2 to 5% of parents who could be called "hardcore anti-vaxxers." Most are just parents trying to do their best.

Many parents who don't vaccinate made the choice because they felt they didn't have all the information by the time their child's vaccination appointment came and went.

When faced with this, some parents choose delayed or reduced vaccination schedules, and some choose to wait until they feel like they have more info. But when the internet keeps serving up misinformation, some parents feel like they never can make a choice. And not making a choice becomes a choice to keep a child unvaccinated.

The UN and the World Health Organization say that measles is a real threat that parents need to be aware of. But blaming and shaming parents isn't the way for society to course correct when it comes to vaccines.

What we need is empathy, understanding and fact-checking.

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