Vaccines, choice, and training rabbits


Just for a moment I’m going to take the view that vaccines are, you know, safe and effective. Sure, there are known side effects, mostly mild short-lived things like injection-site reactions or fever, but Bad Things do happen (e.g. Vaccine Associated Paralytic Polio from the live oral polio vaccine). On balance though it is clear that the benefits of vaccination to society as a whole outweigh the risks to society as a whole. Their success is measured in what we DON’T see – the 20,000 HiB cases a year, the 80-90% drop in pneumococcal disease from vaccine strains, the congenital rubella cases that every medical student knows how to spot (“Blueberry Muffin” baby, cataracts, persistent ductus arteriosus) but will likely never see in their professional lifetime. Safety monitoring is there, as imperfect as it is, which is why for example we don’t have oral polio vaccine in the US any more, and why the first rotavirus vaccine was pulled from the market.

So if we were to take a purely logical view on the matter, vaccination is a no-brainer. For many Docs this is why they get so irate about vaccine refusers. We learn about the diseases and the successes, and find it hard to fathom how you could come to any different conclusion. But clearly people do. There are unfounded fears about “too many too soon”, or aluminum adjuvants that add less exposure than breastmilk, or the fraudulent claim of autism causation that ended up being a scam for one Doc (the infamous Andrew Wakefield) to sell his own measles vaccine. Some parents are simply worried based on a previous bad reaction (I know I was, based on the way my eldest acted after his 2 month shots). Others have a genuine religious belief about medical interventions, and vaccination is just one aspect of that.

So then we run up against the problem of how to deal with this issue. As a general rule of thumb, it is accepted that a patient has the right to refuse aspects of their healthcare. There are very few exceptions to that rule, usually in the interests of others in society – forced hospitalization of mentally ill people who pose a threat to themselves or others, or cases of medical neglect where the State assumes responsibility for the medical decisions of a child when the parent puts them at risk, or Directly Observed Therapy for TB, where optimal treatment is paramount and doses should not be skipped. Things like that.

But vaccines are put into a different category. Why? I think the biggest, most obvious difference is that we’re not talking about treatment of someone with a disease, where inaction has obvious consequences, but rather an intervention to a typically healthy individual. In fact, moderate illness (enough to require hospitalization) is one reason to consider delaying vaccination, as the immunization might not work as well. As such, even though the results of inaction can be severe, resulting in death or disability, and inaction certainly has an impact on others in society, there is a natural reluctance to literally force vaccination upon people. Instead, there are more insidious ways to encourage vaccination through school mandates etc. Vaccines are not mandatory, you just have to get them. (If you can understand that, let me know, as that was how a non-mandatory examination was explained to us in medical school…)

As one approach, I am going to use the analogy of rabbits. Above you can see Princess Lulu Merryweather, an Old English Mini-Lop who was with us for over 8 years before succumbing to a pasteurella abscess. Lulu was a house rabbit and was pretty much housetrained. She knew a basic list of commands and would poop in her cage. The training of a bunny is interesting – as a prey animal they do not respond well to the typical training one might use with a predator animal such as a dog or cat. They are more like a horse, and respond best to coercion rather than discipline. In fact, an effective way to get them to do what you want is to embarrass them. This is difficult to do. It generally involves stamping your foot, turning your back on them, but trying to make eye contact so you know that they know that you are displeased. If you’ve ever had a bunny and told them off for something, you’ve probably seen them do this to you. There were several occasions when, as a kitten, she would pee on the couch and we would both end up stamping and back-turning on each other as I would tell her not to do that, and she would try to tell me not to shoo her off the couch. It was her couch, after all. (Did I mention the “Princess” part was added later? It was more a description than a title…)

So, since the decision not to vaccinate is often based more on emotion than logic, it seems reasonable that for some people (not all of course) an emotional approach will work better than a logical one. Human beings are hard-wired to fear bad things from an action (to vaccinate) more than from inaction (not vaccinating), even though a decision to do nothing is still technically a decision, and fear after all is an emotion. I wonder then if pressure from society, an explicit message that says that unvaccinated kids are an unacceptable risk to others would work. Peer pressure. At the moment we have an attitude of tolerance on the whole – barely more than a raised eyebrow, more often a nod of understanding. There may be pressure from the Docs and schools who are trying to protect society from itself, but there needs to be a grass-roots movement among the parents in my opinion.

I’m not entirely sure yet how exactly to go about doing this. I don’t agree with literally holding a parent back while we forcibly inject their child – since after all we do live in an age where many of the preventable diseases are at very low levels, and that goes against every fiber of my “patient-centered” being. I would much rather have informed decision-making – I just realize that for many their mind is made up no matter what facts I lay out and what misconceptions I correct. What I would like to see is an attitude of personal responsibility to temper the push for personal freedoms. Parents should WANT to vaccinate. Currently most fall into the “I don’t care” or the “I don’t want to” camps. That kind of paradigm shift may be slow coming, and I’m open for suggestions on how that might occur. We can’t use a stick, we need to use the carrot.

And maybe some foot-stomping.


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  1. #1 by Peter English on August 7, 2011 - 16:04

    It’s very easy to think that – because the ones that come to our attention as doctors are those that we have stimulating discussions with – are against vaccination, many or most people/parents are.

    The fact is, however, that most people are in favour of vaccination. A thought worth holding on to.

    • #2 by Nick Bennett on August 7, 2011 - 16:09

      My concern is many just go with the flow, and aren’t truly pro-vax. I have seen it happen (parents who request vaccines when their Doc wants to hold for a fever) but it seems to me that most are just ambivalent.

  2. #3 by Ann Larson on August 8, 2011 - 14:56

    I’ve finished six Swenson Ghana studying the reasons for their childhood immunization success. Peer pressure is one of the reasons since the launch of EPI in 1978 every political leader has supported Immunizations often with being immunized themselves in public. Women are told about the importance of immunization at antenatal care vaccination clinics are well promoted and healthworkers regularly do home vista to talk to families about all health issues including Immunizations they are helped by community volunteers, traditional leaders and local politicians. Why? Because in their lifetime they have seen polio and measles deaths disappear. Can this peer pressure be done in Australia. Where are the very public campaigns about the benefits of Immunizations which encourage peope to talk to each other about it why should young children be allowed in child care with vaccinations? Scienctific tracts never convinced anyone. Only thepower of public opinion will work.

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