As a measles outbreak late last year spread from Disneyland to seven U.S. states affecting at least 147 people, one news organization on the front lines of the story made a deliberate decision about how to handle stories related to vaccines.
“Like climate change, there aren’t two sides to this story,” said Rebecca Plevin, a health reporter for KPCC Southern California Public Radio, referring to the fact that in both cases there’s no dispute over the science. There are not two sets of facts when it comes to vaccines, she said.
Plevin’s remarks came during a panel about vaccines at Health Journalism 2015 in Santa Clara, Calif.
When she’s doing stories about vaccine-preventable diseases or parents’ qualms about giving vaccines, Plevin now talks about the proven benefits of vaccines. If parents talk about diverting from recommended vaccine schedules or say they have fears that vaccines harm children, Plevin and her co-workers include a statement that there’s no scientific evidence backing up claims that vaccines are harmful.
Medical experts who joined Plevin on the panel said journalists need to do a much better job of providing perspective about how vaccines save lives.
“Before vaccines, half of us would not have made it to the age of 21. Or if they did live, they would have been crippled or blind,” said Betsy Rosenblum, M.D., a San Diego family doctor who deals with numerous parents who don’t vaccinate their children.
Rosenblum recalled that in 2008 she had the surreal experience of coping with a measles outbreak that began at her children’s school then spread through contact in her waiting room. A family who had visited Switzerland brought disease home with them.
“Unbeknownst to me 30 percent of the kids (at the school) were unvaccinated,” Rosenblum said.
One of the mothers of a sick child brought the patient to Rosenblum’s office. Three babies under a year old, who were not yet fully vaccinated, picked up the measles.
“To say this was a wake-up call would be an understatement,” Rosenblum said.
She now deals regularly with well-heeled Southern California parents who refuse vaccines. Having practiced medicine in Chicago before relocating to California, it was a stark change for her.
“In my inner-city clinic, I don’t think I had a single person refuse (vaccination),” she said. “Then I came to California. I see more and more parents who don’t want to get their children vaccinated, or if they do, they want their own schedule.”
To help her patients and others understand more about vaccine-preventable diseases, Rosenblum eventually created a class for expectant parents. As they learn about birth alternatives, the parents also learn about the dangers of skipping vaccines for their children.
“People bring me their new babies and they have already made up their minds. At the baby showers, they’re being given anti-vaccine books,” Rosenblum said. “The numbers (of fully vaccinated children) are slowly declining. We get very nervous if we start seeing numbers go below 90 percent.”
For journalists covering the vaccine debate, the panelists suggested the following policies and story ideas:
- Be careful how you illustrate your stories.
Rosenblum showed the typical photo of a wailing baby that accompanies most stories on vaccines. Instead, show pictures of children stricken with diseases that vaccines have prevented, like small pox, tetanus or whooping cough. Or show a happy baby with a Band-Aid instead. The tears from vaccines usually last a short time, while vaccines have long-term positive effects, she said. Science journalist Tara Haelle (@TaraHaelle) suggests finding images online through Creative Commons on Flickr, Google images and Wikimedia.
- Choose your words wisely. In California and other pockets of the U.S. where anti-vaccination sentiment thrives, some parents will say they’re using an “alternative” schedule. Rosenblum suggests using the word “delayed” instead. “It’s like you’re going to put your baby in a car seat eventually,” she said. Until then, the baby is not protected.
- Put relative risks in perspective to show vaccines rarely pose risks, while simple daily events like driving in a car expose people to some risk. Another panelist, medical anthropologist Sharon Kaufman at the University of California, San Francisco, has studied the anti-vaccination movement and what she calls “hyper-vigilance” among parents. She said she sees little trust for doctors and pressure among parents to “evaluate and do research” on every vaccine.
- Story idea: Schools and health departments throughout the U.S. collect data on immunization rates. In California, reporters found that officials were not following up on children who came to school with incomplete
- Analyze whether your state has “personal-belief exemptions” or “religious exemptions” for vaccines. California and other states are pressing to get rid of these exemptions.