Vaccines and Public Health in the U.S.: We Need a (Celebrity) Hero.

“I was also fearful as a new mom but as a student of public health, I understand the evidence-based research now.”

– (author to be disclosed later in this post)

The above statement was made in reference to vaccines a little over a month ago… preBachmann. Michele Bachmann, as the reader likely is aware, is the Republican presidential candidate who broadcasted second-hand, anecdotal, unresearched, fear-mongering on national television on September 12, 2011. She did this by relating the story of a woman who had told Bachmann that her daughter developed “mental retardation” after receiving the HPV vaccination. The American Academy of Pediatrics made a statement the very next morning refuting any link.  It was a wise and necesarry move which seemed swift, yet quite possibly neither fast nor impactful enough.

Bachmann’s words were disheartening to doctors and public health advocates who were just beginning to see some light at the end of the vaccine controversy tunnel – a path that had been leading to new outbreaks of measles, which had been rarely seen in the last few decades. The February 2010 retraction of a Lancet article written by Andrew Wakefield (which had linked vaccines to autism) gave doctors more confidence and something more tangible with which to bolster vaccination recommendations. This is not to say there wasn’t enough evidence prior to that. However, a mere 587 days after the retraction of Wakefield’s article, vaccine proponents were dealt another blow with Bachmann’s story.

One would suspect that the vast majority – if not all – of graduating medical students understand and would emphasize the importance of vaccination. But with primary care doctors squeezed from every angle imaginable in today’s healthcare environment, taking the time to discuss vaccines with each and every patient can seem nearly impossible. In a way, it would seem that doctors who do not have the discussion of the benefits and risks of vaccines have also somehow lost the vision that their role as physicians includes understanding and meeting the needs of the “greater good” of society, as well.**

So, in times of pro-vaccination despair, who will take up the torch?

We need a hero.

The most obvious answer would be a celebrity. Dr. Kevin Pho concurs, stating in a recent blog post,

“Doctors are playing from behind, both with their job of ‘unscaring’ people and combating the celebrity-laden anti-vaccine movement. We need to get more politicians and celebrities onto the side of evidence-based medicine in order to reframe the vaccine debate.”

There is a celebrity who has historically been against vaccination. There are those who promote clean water. As alluded to in a previous blog post, it seemed unlikely that any celebrity would educate the public about the importance of vaccination as fervently.  Salma Hayek, to her credit, has worked with UNICEF and a diaper brand to promote tetanus vaccination in Africa. While there are certainly a lot of commendable and valuable global efforts and not enough for the immense need, vaccination against preventable diseases should continue to be emphasized here in the US.

So, to return to the comment at the very beginning of this blog post, the author is a public figure whom I have been following on Twitter for a few months. She is a well-known advocate for global maternal health and an internationally–recognized supermodel. Last month, I was excited to see that she had posted a couple of valuable tweets regarding the benefits of vaccination, including links to a relatively tame Penn and Teller skit and to an article in the LA Times.

This individual is clearly using knowledge from her public health studies to help spread the word about the importance of vaccines.  I wouldn’t want to put her on the spot as a definite “spokesperson” for vaccination, but I do admire her recent use of Twitter to address this very important issue.

The fact remains, we need a public health hero. Christy Turlington is willing to contribute. Is anyone else?

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(**Choice and informed decision making are very important in Western medicine. But the “informed” part needs to be just that – truly informed. Physicians need to educate, listen, and address concerns. Educate more. Then decide together.)