February 7, 2017

How vaccine supporters are fighting back against false claims

Daily Briefing

    Vaccine advocates are mobilizing amid concerns that vaccination opponents are gaining traction at the state and federal level, Rebecca Robbins reports for STAT News.

    Robbins writes that advocates have seen "little need for vocal advocacy in the past," but now are pushing back against perceived threats with petitions, outreach to lawmakers, and the sharing of personal stories to highlight the importance of vaccines.

    Amy Pisani—executive director of Every Child By Two, a group which advocates for timely childhood vaccinations—said, "We're trying to say there are people here (and) they do care" about advancing evidence-based vaccine policies.

    Trump's election spurred more activism, advocates say

    Advocates said the latest push was prompted partly by President Trump's election.

    Trump has questioned the safety of vaccines, despite scientific consensus supporting their safety, Robbins writes. Further, in January, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., a vocal vaccine critic, said he'd be joining the Trump administration as chair of a commission on vaccine safety—though a Trump spokesperson said no such decision had been made. And Andrew Wakefield, a former doctor who helped launch the anti-vaccine movement with fraudulent science, attended one of Trump's inaugural balls.

    Vaccine critic Robert Kennedy Jr. says Trump asked him to lead 'commission on vaccine safety

    According to Karen Ernst—executive director of Voices for Vaccines, a vaccine advocacy group for parents—her organization has seen membership grow every time a story breaks about Trump's connection to the anti-vaccination movement.

    Separately, Pisani said her group is interested in developing a platform with first lady Melania Trump or Ivanka Trump "to help ensure that the 12,000 babies [who] are born every day get vaccinated." As part of those efforts, former first lady Rosalynn Carter, co-founder of Every Child By Two, has reached out to Melania Trump to request a meeting to discuss vaccinations, suggesting experts who study vaccination and autism join them. According to Pisani, advocates' main goal for such a meeting would be to make the case that a government commission on vaccine safety is unnecessary.

    The White House did not return STAT News' request for comment about Melania Trump's intentions going forward.

    Advocates also eye potential ACA replacement plans

    According to Robbins, Republicans' plan to repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA) presents another challenge for vaccine supporters, as the law established several provisions aimed at facilitating vaccination.

    For instance, the ACA created a vaccination services program that provides funding for initiatives like clinician education, the tracking of community immunization rates, and the administration of no-cost vaccinations to certain low-income children. In response, Every Child By Two is collecting signatures to support maintaining funding for the program—as of Monday, the petition had more than 3,600 signatures, Pisani said. She said she plans to deliver the petition to federal lawmakers on Friday.

    And advocates also are worried about a rule, also established under the ACA, that requires insurers to cover vaccines without cost-sharing. If the provision is repealed and not replaced families could have to pay hundreds of dollars out-of-pocket for recommended care, Robbins writes. Under such a scenario, Ernst said, "You've got families who are picking and choosing vaccines, maybe not because of any philosophical reason but because the paycheck isn't going to cover it this week."

    But advocates also are being careful about how they express their concerns, acknowledging that people who voted for lawmakers vowing to repeal the ACA may also fully support vaccines, Robbins writes. According to Robbins, advocates have said they are open-minded about an ACA replacement plan—so long as it supports vaccine access.

    In the states

    While the vaccination debate gains attention at the national level, much vaccination policy arises at the state level, where lawmakers are debating whether parents should be allowed to opt out of school vaccination requirements because of religious or philosophical beliefs, Robbins writes.

    AMA: No more non-medical vaccination exemptions

    And Texas is "one of the hottest battlegrounds," she adds. The state allows vaccination exemptions for personal and religious reasons. Groups on both sides of the issue have spoken up in recent months, with the pro-vaccination group Immunize Texas—in collaboration with a larger organization—planning to host "legislative days" over the course of the next four months to educate lawmakers on childhood vaccination. In addition, lawmakers are expected to soon propose a measure that would make immunization rates available by individual school, rather than by overall district.

    Advocates tap into the power of personal narratives

    On another front, vaccine supporters are working to share personal stories that show the need for vaccines—a counter to opponents' "emotional anecdotes," Robbins writes. Diane Peterson, of the Immunization Action Coalition, acknowledged, "It's difficult to match up boring science against a story of a parent who 'watched their child change overnight because of the vaccine that they got.'"

    Doc group: When parents refuse to vaccinate their kids, it's sometimes OK to dismiss them as patients

    Pro-vaccine narratives were a "key element" to the passage of a California law eliminating non-medical exemptions for school vaccinations, Robbins writes. For instance, advocates shared the story of a boy with leukemia whose immune system was too weak for him to receive a vaccine, and who was dependent on herd immunity when the state experienced a measles outbreak.

    And even before the presidential election in November, several pro-vaccination groups collaborated to collect and promulgate other personal stories, such as the loss of a friend who died of cervical cancer that might have been prevented by the HPV vaccine and a baby whose immunizations help prevent his grandma from contracting illness (Robbins, STAT News, 1/31).

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