Can Storytelling Save Vaccines?

Nurse, Woman, Person, Girl, Syringe

I have long been pondering why the anti-vaccine movement has been so difficult to counteract. The data are so very crystal clear. People ask, why aren’t vaccines better studied before we give them to our children? But the truth is they are incredibly well-studied. In fact, they are among the single best studied interventions in the history of medicine.

When people say, we need more studies!, it’s not clear to me what they are asking for. Are they even aware how well-studied vaccines are? Do they know that all vaccines undergo ongoing safety monitoring?

More to the point, why are vaccines held to a much higher standard than other areas of medicine? Why do people who are terrified of vaccines frequently embrace homeopathy, which is not only poorly studied, but also, by its own account, prepared with known poisons and has the potential to temporarily worsen your condition? Why is none of that a red flag?

Why are people who are afraid of vaccines willing to accept, if necessary, a drug to treat their pain, depression, or diabetes when pharmaceutical companies have been caught red-handed concealing evidence of dangers of some of these drugs?

Why do vaccines, which demonstrably save lives, often the lives of children, keep getting the short end of the stick?

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The Power of a Good Story

The answer came to me while listening to a podcast about the power of storytelling. Nothing is more gripping than stories of toddlers who were developing normally until they received a vaccine injection and then mysteriously started going downhill; or stories of healthy young girls who developed crippling headaches or autoimmune disorders within a short period of being vaccinated with Gardasil.

Can I admit something? Even though I know that anecdotal evidence such as this is the poorest form of scientific evidence, even though I know there is much, much better scientific evidence that vaccines are safe, I still take pause. My daughter has been vaccinated with Gardasil, but I cringed internally while it happened. We are hard-wired to respond to a good story, and I’ve heard many.

Fighting Story with Story

How do you weave a gripping, heart wrenching tale about the leagues of children who did not die of measles or lose their fertility from mumps? Dr. Paul Offit put it best at one of his talks about vaccine safety at McGill University. He said that vaccines have not just wiped out diseases. They have wiped out our collective memory of the devastation these diseases once caused.

Here’s a story for you: a couple of generations ago, entire hospital wings were filled with children suffering from measles. Yes, most recovered fully but there were those left with permanent brain damage such as permanent vision and hearing loss. Many died.

Here’s another story: Helen Keller likely went deaf and blind from a vaccine-preventable illness.

Probably the best story in favor of vaccines is by Atul Gawande, writing for the New Yorker about trying to wipe out polio in India:

Making our way around the open sewage, the mud-covered pigs, the cows resting curled up like cats with their heads on their hooves, we found the neighbor girl who had come down with polio after the boy. She was eighteen months old, with a big worried face, perfect white teeth, and short spiky hair. She was wearing small gold earrings and a yellow-and-brown checked dress. She squirmed in her mother’s arms, but her legs only dangled beneath her dress. Her mother wore an impassive expression as she stood before us in the sun, holding her paralyzed child. Pankaj gently asked her if the girl had had polio drops before – perhaps she’d received the vaccine but it had not taken. The mother said that a health worker had come around with polio drops a few weeks before her daughter became sick. But she had heard from other villagers that children were getting fevers from the drops. So she refused the vaccination. A look of profound sadness now swept over her. She had not understood, she said, staring down at the ground.

That story has stayed with me for 12 years. Think of it every time you consider refusing a vaccine because you’ve heard stories from your own villagers about vaccine reactions.

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Don’t Rely on Scary Rumors

Parts of Asia will never been polio-free because the villagers don’t trust the health workers who come around with the vaccine. They hear stories that it’s a government conspiracy or that children have side effects. Sound familiar?

But these people are illiterate, with essentially no access to outside information. We in the Western world are fortunate. We have education and access to the Internet and libraries. If we don’t know how to evaluate research, we can ask people who do. We don’t have to rely on village rumors, and we should not. By closing our eyes to hard facts and letting compelling stories drive our behavior, we are bringing back diseases that can seriously harm our own children and the village children.

Do you have a vaccine-positive story? Please share it!

PS: Because it always comes up when I write about vaccines, no I have no financial relationship whatsoever with any pharmaceutical or vaccine company. In no way, directly or indirectly, do I make money off your child’ vaccination, aside from, perhaps, the saved public health dollars.

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