Written by Cameryn Peknik
We know vaccines work. Research has shown that when the correct dose is given, and enough people in a community receive their vaccinations, it is harder for diseases to transmit between people, and rates dramatically decrease. And yet, despite all of the research completed since their development in the late 18th century, and the beginning of their widespread routine administration in the early 20th century, many individuals still have doubts. The polarizing political climate of the United States certainly did not aid the country’s response to the COVID-19 vaccine, and there are a handful of citizens who do not believe in getting the vaccine because of mistrust in the validity of vaccines, and the lack of government transparency. Current discussions surrounding the coronavirus vaccine call for these individuals, newly labeled as “anti-vaxxers”, to do their part in ending the pandemic and receive their vaccine, and rightfully so, as there is ample research to demonstrate their effectiveness against the virus. Along with this, however, is a tendency to blend these individuals into one homogeneous group — a tendency that overshadows a long and important history of vaccine refusal. While this history alone is important to address in order to improve the U.S. healthcare system, it becomes even more crucial when these individuals are responsible for consenting (or not consenting) to vaccinations on behalf of their children as well.
There are four main reasons parents may choose to decline vaccinations for their children: religious reasons, personal beliefs or philosophical reasons, safety concerns, and a desire for more information from healthcare providers. The heightened mistrust in the medical field may very easily fall into the “personal beliefs or philosophical reasons” category, and this category, along with safety concerns and a desire for more information account for a large portion of current vaccine hesitancy. Children, and communities, do better when vaccinated, but these parents are not wrong for wanting more information, or for being hesitant to make important decisions regarding their children’s health. In order to better address the broader implications this issue has on the United States healthcare system, and so that more children and parents will be able to understand the necessity and efficacy of vaccines, the history of refusal must first be understood.
Although communities of color have been disproportionately affected by the spread of the coronavirus, hesitancy within these communities has inclined parents to question whether or not vaccinating themselves, and their children, is the right step to take. Throughout a large part of the United States’ history, people of color, immigrants, and differently-abled individuals have had their trust in the healthcare system eroded over time due to generations of abuse and mistreatment. The forced sterilization of differently-abled women was part of the eugenics movement until the late 1940s. The Tuskegee Syphilis Study misinformed and evaded the consent of 600 Black men, denying them access to penicillin, the main treatment for syphilis, despite its increasing availability. Just two years ago, Irwin County Detention Center was under investigation after more than 40 immigrant women claimed they were subjected to unnecessary and non-consensual gynecological procedures while awaiting immigration hearings or deportations. These scenarios are only a few of countless examples of the abuse of trust and lack of transparency endured by minority populations in the United States, and acknowledging this long history of abuse, it is not difficult to understand why parents would require more information before vaccinating their children. When these groups of individuals are written off as uneducated or ignorant, it only further fails to hold the medical community accountable for neglecting long-awaited changes in patient relations.
The current problem is two-fold: not only is there a long-standing history of abuse, but current unbiased medical academia is unattainable for a majority of the U.S. population, and the influx of opinion-based media outlets leave many individuals misled and misinformed. As one of the fundamental duties of physicians, and of all healthcare providers, the medical community has an obligation to secure their patients’ welfare. Only 8 of the 50 states allow providers to waive parental consent to vaccinations, meaning in order for minors to receive any vaccines recommended by their physicians, their parents have to approve — and when they don’t, it means the child will remain unvaccinated regardless of their personal wishes for their own body. This means that in order to ensure the safety and welfare of children, parents must have access to factually accurate information regarding the vaccinations their children are to receive, and physicians have the responsibility of ensuring that this information is understood and met with patience.
Better transparency and more diligent efforts among professionals to understand parents’ backgrounds when forming opinions on whether to vaccinate their children is the best chance the American healthcare system has to protect its children when they cannot act to protect themselves. By empathizing with parents, explaining the science and research clearly and extensively, and providing a listening ear to both minors and their guardians, physicians gain the opportunity to provide exceptional and rigorous care to all of their patients, as is their duty. Rather than meeting these communities and individuals with anger and frustration, the American public should meet the medical community with pressure to change, to provide more thorough resources, and to train physicians to better communicate with the populations they serve. It is high time wide-ranging efforts be made to ensure that the rights of all patients, and their safety, are heard, addressed, and exercised.
Edited by Sophia Scott