Family Matters

Parents Wary of Childhood Vaccines? Here’s How to Persuade Them

Doctors need to step up their p.r. game if they're going to counter the anti-immunization tide, says a new Mayo Clinic study that offers talking points on how to respond to parents' fears.

  • Share
  • Read Later
Peter Dazeley / Photographer's Choice / Getty Images

If Dr. Greg Poland has his way, his new study in the journal Human Immunology will serve as talking points for doctors besieged by “vaccine-concerned” parents whose viewpoint is so different from mainstream medicine that “they might as well be from a different galaxy.”

It’s National Infant Immunization Week, promoted by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to encourage parents to protect their young children against 14 vaccine-preventable diseases. The CDC is honoring what it’s calling “childhood immunization champions,” doctors and advocates in nearly every state who are passionate about raising immunization rates in their communities. In Alaska — where nearly 9% of kindergartners aren’t vaccinated — Dr. Bruce Chandler distributes a weekly newsletter with updated vaccine information, punctuated with his slogan: Keep Vaccinating. In Arizona, Leslie Maier crusades for increased awareness of the meningococcal vaccine after her 17-year-old son, Chris, died less than 24 hours after showing symptoms of bacterial meningitis.

(MORE: Exposure to Common Chemicals May Weaken Vaccine Response)

And on Thursday, the United Nations Foundation’s Shot@Life campaign kicks off, drawing attention to the critical importance vaccines play in impoverished countries where access to medical care is iffy. BabyCenter’s Amy Graff, currently in Ghana with Bono’s ONE campaign to observe first-hand the importance of global immunization, wrote:

In these far-flung corners of the world, vaccines aren’t annoying — they are gifts from the heavens, shots of life-saving gold, hope for the next generation. But many countries don’t have sophisticated healthcare systems or funding to distribute them, and mothers are more familiar with the diseases than the vaccines. Globally, one in five children lack access to immunizations that help keep children in the U.S. healthy. Every 20 seconds a child in the developing world dies from a vaccine-preventable disease.

Statistics like those are exactly why Poland, a vaccinologist at the Mayo Clinic, can’t understand how U.S. parents can decide to not immunize their children. Some pediatricians have gone so far as to consider “firing” patients whose parents don’t vaccinate them: although children are required to be fully immunized before starting school, many states have “philosophical exemptions” for parents who are concerned about the safety of vaccines. Vermont, which has a 6% exemption rate, along with Washington — just under Colorado’s rate of 7% — is considering abolishing that provision. “It’s a balance between individual rights and our obligations to each other in society,” Vermont House Speaker Shap Smith told the Associated Press.

(MORE: How Safe Are Vaccines?)

Parents who choose not to vaccinate believe they are putting their children’s health first; experts strongly disagree. The numbers tend to back the latter: California, Oregon, Vermont and Washington have reported rising rates of whooping cough, which public health officials attribute in part to children not being vaccinated and adults shunning boosters. And measles cases tripled between 2001 and 2010 to 233 episodes in 31 states, largely due to children with vaccine exemptions, says the CDC.

“There are acts of omission and acts of commission,” says Poland. “I have had a mother come in and say, If I give this vaccine to my child and something happens, I could never live with myself. Right behind comes a mother who says if I don’t give this vaccine to my child and something happens, I could never live with myself. I wish both parents could hear each other.”

Here’s what Poland often tells worried parents: “Look, there are 2,000 physicians at the Mayo Clinic, and as best we can tell, all their kids have received vaccinations. Do you really think doctors would give their kids these vaccines if for a millisecond they believed there was more harm than benefit?”

(MORE: Vaccines: They’re Not Just for Kids (But Too Few U.S. Adults Are Getting Immunized))

In response to parents such as Jennifer Stella, who voiced her suspicions about vaccines to the AP after her son suffered a seizure following immunizations and her daughter endured an eczema outbreak, Poland points out that chance alone dictates that some people will be coincidentally diagnosed with disease or suffer a loss soon after being immunized. “Say a woman has a miscarriage after being vaccinated,” says Poland. “There are 17,000 miscarriages a year. The vaccine did not cause the miscarriage. It would have happened anyway.”

But many parents remain dubious, particularly in communities where vaccine skepticism abounds. On Thursday in Seattle, where I live, two naturopaths are hosting a workshop for parents at the Center for Birth entitled “Childhood Vaccinations: Your Questions Answered” at which they’ll discuss the pros and cons of vaccination, the controversy surrounding vaccination and alternative vaccine schedules. Participants will receive, according to an email, “valuable information and resources that will help them to make informed decisions regarding their own child’s vaccinations.”

In Poland’s view, the only informed decision is one that adheres to the standard vaccination schedule endorsed by the American Academy of Pediatrics. His study, intended to help doctors persuade on-the-fence parents about the importance of immunization, is an acknowledgement that physicians need to step up their p.r. game.

(MORE: Experimental Vaccine to Treat Breast, Ovarian Cancer Shows Promise)

His research lists the top three “immunity-related misconceptions:”

  • Babies’ systems aren’t ready for the number of vaccines given today.
  • Vaccines can cause autoimmune diseases.
  • Natural immunity is safer and better.

His suggested retorts:

  • Babies’ immune systems are meant to be “immunologically educated.” Why worry about antigens being introduced when babies encounter no shortage of this foreign immunologic material while crawling around on the floor? In any case, the number of proteins kids are exposed to in vaccines has decreased from 3,000 a generation ago to 300 today. Contract one viral infection, and you’re potentially exposed to thousands of proteins, which are the building blocks of viral or bacterial organisms.
  • With very rare exceptions associated with vaccines for rabies and smallpox, immunizations can’t trigger autoimmune diseases — or autism — because the bioimmunologic criteria for inducing disease against yourself aren’t present.
  • Natural immunity is not better. Take chickenpox, for example. Each year, 100 U.S. kids die from complications. Plus, once you’re exposed, the virus lies dormant for decades, then reemerges as shingles in 50% of people who live to age 80.

(MOREAIDS Vaccine: The Promise of HIV Antibodies)

“Some people are militant about this,” he says, recalling the group that showed up at his home years ago to accuse “doctors like me of giving vaccines to cause autoimmune diseases in patients decades later so we would have a practice.”

“Choosing not to receive a vaccine does not absolve one of risks,” says Poland. “It’s different risks and greater risks. The most contagious disease we have is fear.”



False facts.. I guess im not surprised all you pro vaxers blame us anti vaxers for every single thing. Did you know only 1.8% of kindergarten students are not vaccinated or partially vaccinated? That is NOTHING in the big scheme of things. Over 95 % "herd immunity" according to the doctors, WRONG once again. When is the last time YOU went for a booster? Me, over 8 years ago and i haven't been sick since. HMMM.. So "herd immunity" is fake, its a lie, its something told to coherse you into vaccinating. One more thing. Hep B, is there a reason my BABY needs a STD shot? Is my one month old having sex, no, is she sharing dirty needles? NONONO! STOP just believing whatever the doctors say, think for yourself once in a while people.

Not to mention in Italy the courts AWARDED a mom of a vaccine injured child life long care. MILLIONS OF DOLLARS PEOPLE!! MILLIONS!! why would they pay millions if it was false? 

Chew on that you sheeple!


And in the summer of 2012 we find a confirmation from the Italian Government that in the case of a law suit brought against the medical providers, the Italian government admitted that there is solid evidence of causation related to the MMR and Autism. 

Parents should note that medical staff have spent the past several decades increasing immunization volume in infants and young children.  Instead of protecting these children, the immunizations they are providing are causing the children to have permanent developmental disorder.  The Doctors seem far to arrogant to admit they are incorrect concerning immunizations and the children are made to suffer for that arrogance.  I remember another set of doctors who set themselves on the pathway of Eugenics (forced sterilization).   In hind sight those Doctors were wrong in their practice.  How many children will it take before the medical industry considers their actions in these cases and at least changes the schedule?  Until they are Proven correct beyond doubt will it really hurt their pride to simply change the immunization schedule?  Is that too much to ask for a child which is at risk of permanent developmental disorders (i.e. autism)? 


@MariaPetrizzo Hep B is NOT only sexually-transmitted. It's a disease that affects your liver. Babies can get it from infected mothers, and from other sources because it's transmitted via bodily fluids. Hep B CAN, however, be fatal. So it's better to vaccinate your baby for Hep B than to risk a fatal case of Hep B infection.


That was in Italy, none of the vaccines for America are made in Italy. Our vaccines are different and our kids are on different vaccine schedules as well. Because of this our doctor's can honestly say that our vaccines are in no way shape or form the cause of such developmental disorders like autisim. I can't beleive that people will trust the word of actors/actress and doctors who are no longer practicing or doing research instead of the several hundred doctors and scientests that spend their days researching all of this informationso that we can safely immunize our kids. I think delaying or not vaccinating our kids is more harmful, because that means the child is at a higher risk of being exposed and possibly hospitilized if they contract the disease that they refuse to get for their kids or they have to come in so many times for shots that the child is then terrified of going to the doctors that they have severe anxiety every time the go there. Is any of that worth it to your child instead of just doing the shots when it's recommended. I am happy to say that in years past we had almost not Mumps, measles, chicken pox, polio, or pertussis but because now parents are freaked out by vaccinations there have been a crazy increase in these disease that there have been deaths, hospitilizations which could have been prevented. So until the vaccines have been proven 100% responsible for causing such cases like autisim, then you should save your child and vaccinate them