As you’ve probably noticed by the recent erratic posting on this blog, I’ve been crazy busy. Some has been good — lots of new assignments and new opportunities — and some has been challenging — family health issues — but it’s all made it difficult to blog as regularly as I want to, and I have a long list of posts half-written in my head and waiting to be finished and posted.
Although I missed the opportunity to post much during National Immunization Awareness Month in August, I did answer questions for a Q&A with Sophia Bernazzani, community manager of MHA@GW, the official blog for the online master of health administration from the Milken Institute School of Public Health at the George Washington University. They published the Q&A last week, and I’m reproducing it with permission here because I answer several questions that my blog readers may have as well. Enjoy!
Since last winter, there have been outbreaks of measles in the U.S., a disease that was declared eliminated in 2000. Recent incidences have been frightening because they’re manageable in a world where nearly everyone gets vaccinated, but some people use personal reasons to avoid them. What needs to change in the conversation to prevent future diseases and superbugs from becoming a full-fledged outbreak?
There needs to be a big overhaul in the way we talk about immunization to remove shame and finger-pointing from the conversation. I’ve found that some of the people who promote immunizations cite biological research but don’t also refer to social science research. However, there’s a lot of research on what convinces people to get vaccinated. What doesn’t work is shaming people and finger-pointing … and that’s what’s going on in conversations today. There also needs to be a change in how doctors talk to patients about immunizations. Patients have real concerns, and given rampant misinformation online and in the media, their concerns aren’t unreasonable. People can’t get all of the information they need about immunizations on Google.
But some doctors ask, “Why don’t you trust me?” when patients ask questions. That’s the wrong attitude. Skepticism is healthy, and many doctors aren’t well-equipped to handle all the concerns about immunizations that vaccine-hesitant parents may have during a 15-minute checkup. The problem is insurance companies don’t reimburse doctors for the extra time, so most can’t afford to spend more time with patients going over these concerns. I would love to see a complete overhaul of the health care system in which insurance companies could empower doctors to spend time with their patients to build trust and show them evidence to improve immunization rates.
Doctors need to be empathetic and compassionate, and not dismissive. I understand the perspective of a doctor who spends years in training and residency and is the subject matter expert. I can understand how doctors would feel insulted when patients say they don’t trust them. But it’s not about doctors, it’s about the big picture. It’s about patients versus vast amounts of misinformation, not patients versus doctors. There will be some people you can’t reach, but a lot more vaccine-hesitant people can be reached with empathy and compassion.
What are your thoughts on laws like S.B. 277, a law passed this summer in California, that eliminate personal and religious exemption from vaccines for school-aged children? Why aren’t other states passing similar laws?
It was late last Wednesday evening when I was just about to begin working again on a major feature due the next day — and a couple friends on Facebook alerted me that vaccines made an appearance during the Republican debate on CNN. Great, I thought. Just what I need. It was close to midnight, and I had a 6:30am flight the next morning to DC for a women-in-science event the following evening. I hadn’t finished packing, and the feature needed to be done by 5pm the following day. But after the third person mentioned the debate, I figured I needed to check it out.
I already knew that Donald Trump frequently repeated the vaccine-autism myth, so I assumed that Ben Carson had set him straight and that was that. I was completely blindsided and disappointed by Carson’s response, however. As soon as I finished watching the clip, I knew I would have to write about it. I couldn’t believe such a well-respected pediatric neurosurgeon had repeated the Jenny McCarthy mantra of “too many, too soon” and even suggested that “many” other pediatricians agreed. I also bristled at the implication that the CDC recommends any vaccines which don’t prevent death. Carson had been handed a golden opportunity to educate the masses watching the debate about a major public health issue, and he blew it.
I had been formulating the response in my head as I rewatched the clip from the debate and transcribed it, so I pulled up the CDC schedule and got to work, describing succinctly how each disease we vaccinate against can ruin or end a life and then describing the problems with the “too many too soon” mantra. I wrote the post quickly, scheduled it for 6am the next morning, packed, made some more progress on the feature story, and finally hit the sack at 2:30am. I was up by 5:15am for my flight and arrived in DC shortly after 11am.
Meanwhile, the Forbes post was gathering steam — fast. I’ve been blown away by the response — as I write this, it has over 375,000 views — and thrilled that it led to my first appearance on NPR’s All Things Considered, where I talked with Audie Cornish about the risks of delaying vaccines. I’ve written about this issue before for Scientific American, but it was a great opportunity to drive home the point that following the CDC schedule poses fewer risks than designing your own schedule (barring any legitimate medical concerns that are discussed with a doctor).
I still find it deeply troubling that three of the Republican candidate for president, including two doctors, were so misinformed or dismissive of vaccines and the CDC vaccine schedule. I don’t know if Carson truly believes what he said, was pandering to the Republican base, or was simply intimidated by Trump, but it none of those three possibilities inspires confidence in his leadership. I’ve received a significant number of emails and “corrections” to the Forbes post, including from MDs, chastising me for “misinterpreting” Carson’s words or having the audacity and arrogance to presume I know as much as a pediatric neurosurgeon. He has a lot of fanboys and fangirls, to be sure.
But I don’t need to know as much as Carson. I only need to know what the consensus of the scientific evidence shows, what the medical and public health communities agree on, and what the American Academy of Pediatrics, the CDC, the Institute of Medicine, and other major organizations make clear: the CDC childhood immunization schedule is as safe and effective as our current technology allows with vaccines. It’s not 100% safe, as nothing in life is or ever can be. But its benefits far, far outweigh its risks, and that’s something anyone wanting to govern the nation should know.You can read my Forbes post here. You can also read about Carson’s much more informed and sensible previous comments on vaccines in a post by Emily Willingham here. And Forbes contributor Steven Salzberg also covered the issue here.You can read the transcript of my NPR appearance and hear the segment here.
During National Immunization Month in August, various public health organizations created a wealth of resources for parents that relate to vaccines. One of those is elegantly simple and shared here. The Simmons School of Nursing and Health Sciences created a handy graphic that outlines all the ages when children get their well-child visits and what vaccines and screenings they get at each one. The graphic goes from birth to age 17 and couldn’t be presented more simply. It’s perfect for printing out to post on the fridge too.
Brought to you by Nursing@Simmons: FNP Program
Even though the summer is winding down, a little bit of August is still left, and the sun’s rays burn all year-round. When the beautiful fall days around the corner finally arrive, it might be easy to forget while playing outside for hours that exposed skin is still susceptible to being burned. That means protection from the sun in the form of clothing, shade or sunblock is vital.
There are lots of scare stories every year about the “harmful chemicals” in various top-brand sunscreens. It’s true that some sunscreens have concerning compounds, and we need more research to learn what the actual possible effects (and from what dosage) of those compounds are. But the known risks of skin cancer such as melanoma currently outweigh the concerns of theoretical risks from sunscreen compounds.
The best sunblock is zinc oxide, which is very safe for the skin. Of course, it’s also bright white and doesn’t rub in, so it’s rarely a choice parents reach for (and rarely one kids will tolerate). The snafu this summer with the failure of Jessica Alba’s Honest Company sunscreen show how important it is to go with trusted brands that have a long track record of safety and effectiveness. We use Aveeno Baby in our home and continue to rely on it. PopSugar has a worthwhile list of 10 sunscreens for kids, as does Parents.com. (Of course, Alba’s sunscreen is on both of them, so it’s always buyer beware.) I’ve been asked many times to review sunscreens here on this blog, and hopefully one day I’ll be able to invest the time to do so. Read the rest of this entry »
You’ve probably noticed the blog has been a bit thin of late. I have a long list of backlogged pieces to write, but the past seven weeks have been nonstop illnesses in our home — including ER visits, too many doctor visits to count, and even two hospital admissions and stays — so I’ve fallen way behind not only in blogging but in my regular work as well. About the only place I’ve been able to continue keeping up new articles is at Forbes. If you’ve missed my pieces there, I hope you’ll check them out.
Two weeks back, I wrote about the outstanding documentary Someone You Love: The HPV Epidemic, followed by a Q&A with the filmmaker. The timing was serendipitous since I had just before that written about the largest safety study on the HPV vaccine. I also wrote about teens’ use of e-cigarettes (vaping) and how Mark Zuckerberg’s pregnancy announcement helped destigmatize pregnancy loss. The latter story led to what will now be a permanent page on this blog in which women can share their stories of pregnancy loss.
I also wrote about a recent study looking at fear appeal strategies to change the minds of those who oppose vaccines, and then about a CDC study finding that too many middle school and high school students are still starting school too early. Had I not been dealing with all the insanity of illness in our home and had I planned better, I would have written about World Breastfeeding Week, but that would have required more time (and nuance) than I could spare lately.
I’m hoping to finally get caught up and posting some of the great stuff I have planned soon, so stay tuned. In the meantime, I wanted to share an awesome video from Voices for Vaccines, a fun “All About That Vax” music video.
I wrote yesterday about Mark Zuckerberg’s announcement that he and wife Priscilla Chan are expecting a daughter. In that announcement on Facebook, he also shared that the couple has gone through three miscarriages, a revelation that will no doubt help the many women who experience pregnancy loss every year and feel lonely and perhaps even guilty or stigmatized. To continue the process of sharing, I included in that post stories from women who had experienced miscarriages or stillbirths, and I received such a wonderful response that I have set up a page on this blog permanently where women can share their stories.
The new page is intended to be both a place where women’s (and men’s, if they wish to contribute) testimonies may provide some sense of understanding and empathy to the women who lose a pregnancy. Only by sharing these stories can we make the experience just a little less lonely, even if it may not assuage the pain. Anyone who wishes to contribute their story can send me an email at tara at redwineandapplesauce dot com. You can use your full name, only your first name, or your initials. There are no requirements. The page is intended to serve the women who share and those who read it and nothing else.
NOTE: To skip right to the page of all the articles, click here.
I received an interesting and unexpected tweet last week: it contained a link to a blog post calling my credibility and independence as a journalist into question. To be honest, I found it amusing. If that shill check from “Big pHARMa” ever arrives as a couple folks seem to think it will, then it will certainly be nice not to feel chained to the massive debt of school loans that keeps me up nights, either working or worrying. Alas, until then, I will continue to get paid by actual journalism outlets for doing… actual journalism.
I won’t link to the post – a Google search of my name may turn it up – but the person who wrote it did me a favor. In their sad attempt to implicate me as an undercover writer for pharma companies, they compiled every single article I have written for Forbes that relates to vaccines in any way. (They seemed confused that I would write so much about vaccines for Forbes – that was part of their “evidence” that I was basically a shill – because they seemed unaware of the fact that Forbes has an entire healthcare channel of a couple dozen writers with different specialties. I was brought on specifically because of my specialty in reporting on vaccines.)
That list, complete with dates and links, was tremendously valuable. I copied and pasted it into a new page, added my other vaccine-related articles written for other publications, and Voila! I now have a page with every one of my vaccine-related journalism pieces in one place for reference. I’ve had friends ask for this before, but it’s not something I had time to pull together. The blog post by my “fan” made it possible by taking on the most time-consuming bit. And now, I’ll simply update it as I go along. So, enjoy the new feature, my Vaccine Articles Off-Site page right here.
As you’ve probably noticed if you’re a regular reader, this blog has been a bit sparse lately. I’ve had the triple whammy of travel, family illnesses and then a pile-up of work – plus the catching up after the travel and illnesses. June is not usually a big news month, but it was this year, with several huge Supreme Court decisions, the passage of California’s vaccination law (SB 277) and the death of a woman with measles. These and a half dozen new clients have kept me on my toes, so I apologize for the infrequent posts. However, the good news is that things are slowing down to warp speed, so I should be able to start posting a bit more regularly now. (I realize that simply typing it will make it no longer so!) So, bear with me because I have a number of great new posts planned, and I’ll be writing about one way in which I’ll be slightly expanding the focus of the blog (while keeping it still completely rooted in the evidence base).
In the meantime, I’m sharing a couple relevant links for work I wrote this week as well as a great video. I’m thinking each Friday here on out will be devoted to either a video or a news round-up (or both!) Since I sadly missed the opportunity to post about Shark Week on this blog, I’ll simply post two recent shark stories I wrote for Shark Week. One, with gorgeous images, features the catching and tagging of a silky shark off the coast of Florida, one of the first silkies to be tagged with a GPS satellite tag. You can even track it on Google Earth! The other, in Scientific American, describes the findings of a recent study showing that the risk of a white shark attack off the California coast has plummeted 91 percent, and risk has probably dropped throughout the rest of the world too. Sadly, that might be because we’re killing sharks at such a disastrous rate of 100 million per year.
In terms of health stories, I wrote about the risk of medical errors with the newborn naming conventions used in most hospitals for HealthDay. Then I wrote (and photographed) a piece for NPR about Essure, a non-surgical permanent form of birth control that thousands of women have complained about, though it’s not clear what adverse effects might be directly caused by the device. If you’re done with childbearing and considering a permanent form of contraception, you might want to check that story out. And then, the big news, which I may post about separately next week, is that the largest, most comprehensive safety study to date on Gardasil, the four-strain HPV vaccine, found… drumroll!… no serious side effects. There was no original research in this study. It was a review of everything published so far as well as some data not yet published. This is definitely reassuring news for those still uneasy about the HPV vaccine, the first vaccine invented specifically for the purpose of preventing cancer.
And now, the video! It’s short and as kid-friendly as they come: an opportunity to introduce your kids to the U.S. Surgeon General, Dr. Vivek Murthy, and the importance of getting vaccinated. (You can see a longer version in which Elmo learns about germs and antibodies at The Daily Dot.) Enjoy!
There are days – many days, unfortunately – when living in the U.S. frustrates or saddens or angers me. As I see black churches burning in the midst of a debate over a racist symbol following a tragedy like the Charleston shootings, it’s hard not to become despondent. When you hear presidential hopefuls making non-science based comments (I’m not going to link because this isn’t a political blog, and I don’t need to draw attention to them all anyway), it’s disheartening. Turning on the news some days can be a recipe for depression or anxiety.
But the past week or two has been different. Just a day after the Supreme Court upheld Affordable Care Act subsidies – a ruling that ensures millions of individuals do not lose their health insurance – one of the most momentous rulings of our time came: the final wall against marriage equality fell down, and the country (and social media) erupted in a celebration of rainbows – just in time for Pride Weekends across the country. (In a less publicized but also important ruling, the Supreme Court upheld fair housing policies as well.)
As I wrote at Forbes the day of the marriage equality ruling, the Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision was a win for children too. The American Academy of Pediatrics has maintained for more than a decade that gay parents are just as qualified to be parents as straight ones. The AAP’s policy on same sex parents is that children fare just as well as those of different-sex parents, a reality upheld by a long and robust evidence base. What matters is that children have “secure and enduring relationships with committed and nurturing adults to enhance their life,” and sexual orientation or gender differences have no effect on that need.
Then, after a weekend of rainbow madness, Monday brought California governor Jerry Brown’s signature on Senate Bill 277, the legislation which removes all non-medical exemptions to immunization requirements for daycare and schools in California. (California’s immunization requirements do not include all the vaccines recommended on the CDC schedule. For example, rotavirus, HPV, and Hib are not required for kindergarten entry, and seventh grade entry only requires proof of Tdap and MMR.)
This law makes California the third in the U.S. (along with Mississippi and West Virginia) to offer no religious, philosophical or other personal belief exemptions to immunization requirements, and the first to roll back a prior such exemption. While it is unfortunate that a state would find it necessary to legislate that parents vaccinate their children because of the fear and misinformation surrounding the topic, the low levels of herd immunity in California which allowed the measles outbreak from Disneyland to spread so far and wide make it clear how the law will better protect children too young to be vaccinated and those individuals who are immune-compromised (as the woman who died of measles in Washington was). If nothing else, legislators recognized the safety and effectiveness of vaccines and the fact that their benefits outweigh their risks – a win for science.
So it seems there are actually things worth celebrating for today’s Fourth of July. We live in a complicated, heartbreaking, beautiful world, and our country’s diversity – so much a strength – makes it challenging to find ways we can all live together in a nation that (hopefully, eventually, one day) offers justice, equality and the best chance possible for good health to all individuals while also recognizing our differences and our need to decide for ourselves the best way to live our lives without infringing on the lives or rights of others. That’s no small ask or task. We’re stumbling our way in that direction. We have a long way to go. The past two weeks, however, we took a couple significant steps in that direction. Let’s hope we can continue to find our way forward. Happy Fourth of July!
A conversation with Anne Geddes about meningitis, vaccines and her remarkable photo series of meningitis survivors
Next week, the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices will decide whether to recommend the MenB vaccine, which protects against the B strain of meningococcal disease. Strains A, C, W and Y are already covered in current vaccines. Over at Forbes today, I wrote about some of the issues – mainly cost and the rarity of the disease – the CDC will consider. But I also wrote about the efforts of photographer Anne Geddes in raising awareness about meningococcal disease. Yes, THAT Anne Geddes – she of the adorable babies in flower petals and pea pods, “under the sea” and posing as acorns.
I admit I jumped at the opportunity to interview Anne Geddes. (You can watch the complete interview – and get a sense of how I interview folks – in the video below.) After all, I love photographing babies too! But there was another reason I was thrilled to interview her: we have shared a common photography subject, one of the amazing survivors she photographed for her awareness project Protecting Our Tomorrows: Protecting Against Meningoccoal Disease, which she describes here.
Jamie Schanbaum, whom I mention at the beginning of my Forbes piece, was a student at the University of Texas at Austin when she developed meningitis, which led to seven months in the hospital and loss of both legs and all her fingers. I met her while doing my graduate degree in photojournalism because I wanted to photograph her for my thesis, which, you’ll be completely unsurprised to find out, was a series of visual and written stories about families and individuals affected by vaccine-preventable diseases. One of those stories I’ve written about before on this blog, that of Nicolis Williams, who did not survive meningitis.
My photojournalistic, candid style is quite different from Anne’s gorgeously crafted portraiture, but both of us captured Jamie’s spunk, strength and intensity. She’s a hell of a survivor, having gone on to win paralympic events in cycling. You can see the images both Anne and I shot here, as well as some other survivors Anne photographed that she gave me permission to include. You can see the full series and some great behind-the-scenes images at this Tumblr.
In addition to interviewing her and Dr. Leonard Friedland from GSK (one of the pharma companies that manufactures a MenB vaccine and which supported Geddes’ photo series.), I wanted to hear what drew Anne to do the series and how she approached it. When I told her we had both photographed Jamie, she told me how her image of Jamie came to be: Read the rest of this entry »