What We Need Is Healthy Communication

runyan_josh_otBack-to-school season is firmly upon us, and with the sales on school supplies just recently ended, the big yellow buses have returned local streets to quagmires of morning and afternoon traffic. Many children are overjoyed at meeting friends they haven’t seen all summer, while quite a few parents are ecstatic that the little ones are once again out of the house for the daytime hours.

But amid the celebrating, there’s also the stress: of new schools, of new friends, of new car-pool routes. For a growing group of new school parents, whose children have — according to Maryland law — 20 days to comply with inoculation requirements, there’s the stress of choosing whether or not to vaccinate their children.

For them, as you’ll read in this week’s cover story, to comply means to subject their children to untold harm. Whatever the questions surrounding the shaky science they rely on, in their minds the threat of autism is real and the danger of vaccinations, as promulgated in a growing body of websites and social media campaigns, darn near certain.

On the other side, parents who adhere to the recommendations of such bodies as the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Centers for Disease Control are increasingly worried about the prospect of their own children, unvaccinated infants among them, being subjected to a plethora of diseases once thought eradicated. For them, the growing anti-vaccination movement is a clear and present danger.

To say that emotions are high in this environment would be an understatement. That 18 outbreaks and 593 confirmed cases of measles occurred in this country between Jan. 1 and Aug. 8 of this year is downright frightening. That whooping cough has experienced a record increase — 9,964 cases from Jan. 1 to June 16, a 24 percent increase over the same time period last year according to the CDC — is horrific.

The culprit identified by authorities for this degradation in public health is the failure of parents to vaccinate their children. Polio was once thought a disease of the past in the developed world, but there are parents here in Baltimore who regard the disease, which killed thousands in 1916, crippled no less than President Franklin D. Roosevelt and continued to kill and disable through the 1950s, as posing little more threat than the common cold in an otherwise healthy child.

That this is a viewpoint gaining a growing, albeit limited, acceptance is scary. But that parents fear reprisals from their friends and neighbors for doing what they legitimately feel is in their children’s best interests is just as worrisome.

Perhaps what is needed is more communication. Far too often, healthcare in this country has amounted to a top-down “do as I say” approach on the part of policymakers and doctors. But while such an approach might have worked in an age where information was scarce, today many people harbor a visceral distrust of “official” dogma. They turn to the Internet, where their views can be magnified, confirmed and spread.

At the very least, those on both sides of the vaccination debate speak for the children. As old-time diseases reappear and spread, it’s time they start talking to each other, rather than past each other.


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