In the midst of the current vaccine debate, I find myself wondering why only parents are coming under fire. Yes, they’re responsible for consenting to the vaccine, but they are guided by pediatricians who seem to be getting off the hook too easily.

Six years ago, I was a new mom at the height of the Jenny McCarthy anti-vaccine crusade. I like to think of myself as a logical and reasonable person, but some of the media crept in and I found myself worried about giving my son the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine. When my husband and I asked our pediatrician about the possible side effects of the vaccine, she responded with a useless non-answer that included something about us “being mean if we didn’t do it.”

Luckily, we sided with science and got the vaccine, but we could have just as easily given in to our fears and opted out. The medical community is responsible for educating parents through open, factual conversations. If she had said, “Look, we have no scientific evidence to support the autism claim, and we know that measles is a preventable, deadly disease,” I would have gotten it without hesitation. Rather, I got the vaccine and nervously watched my son like a hawk for any possible change in his behavior. I also switched pediatricians; if I couldn’t trust her to have a discussion with me like a normal, rational person about vaccines, what would happen if something more concerning ever came up?

Here are two truths: (1) Most parents carefully make decisions with the very best intentions for their kids, and (2) parents do not have the medical expertise required to make decisions with massive public-health implications.

Organizations like the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) set practice guidelines and help states make legislative decisions about public-health policies. The medical community has failed us on two fronts: It has been too liberal in its approach to immunization requirements for school enrollment, and it has been absent in the media to counter the anti-vaccine messaging. While I’m glad the AAP website urges parents to vaccinate their children, what parents proactively visit that website? While I see public-service announcements on TV daily about domestic violence, I’ve never see a PSA about the risks of not vaccinating. Where was that Super Bowl commercial?

I had an allergic reaction to the MMR vaccine as a baby and may or may not have received a second shot (this was the 1970s, before electronic medical records). I recently inquired about this after a diagnosed case of measles at my work. I contacted my doctor and scheduled a blood test to check for immunity and to possibly receive a booster, but why did I have to do this myself, and how many other people are in the same boat? How long have I potentially been an unknowing victim and transmitter of this terrible disease?

While it infuriates me to think that many parents choose not to vaccinate, I have a sliver of sympathy for them, because they are making uninformed decisions as a result of a breakdown in patient education and because they are being allowed to make poor choices backed by harmful public-health laws. I still believe in personal choices in health care, but children unvaccinated by choice (not based on a medical reason preventing vaccination) should not be in situations that put others at risk. Period. End of story.

If we are motivated to reduce the risk of preventable disease, it seems that it is our responsibility to press harder on all responsible parties. Parents are only one piece of the equation. It’s a lot easier to draft a blog post ostracizing parents and repost it on your Facebook page than it is to write to your doctor, medical organizations and legislators demanding change, but it’s also a lot less effective.

 

Jodi Fenlon Rebuffoni, of Minneapolis, works in medical research.