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What can physicians and scientists do to increase public trust in vaccines?

At the end of January, the Pew Research Center issued a thought-provoking report called Public and Scientists’ Views on Science and Society External Link. The survey results included are chilling. On the issue of whether vaccines for childhood diseases such as measles, mumps, rubella (MMR) and polio should be required, 86% of surveyed AAAS scientists agreed, while only 68% of adult non-scientists felt childhood vaccines should be required. For parents of children under 18, the proportion fell to 66%. Among younger adults aged 18-29, only 59% agreed vaccines should be mandatory External Link.

This growing divide between the public's and scientists' views on the safety of vaccines is at the heart of a foreboding debate flaring up as a result of recent outbreaks of pertussis, polio and measles- diseases once all but eradicated from the developed world.

According to the CDC, the 1989-1991 U.S. measles outbreak resulted in 55,622 reported cases, over 11,000 hospitalizations and 123 deaths. Compared with these devastating statistics, the 382 reported cases from a 2014 outbreak primarily among unvaccinated Amish populations in Ohio, and the 102 reported cases as of February 2 External Link related to a California amusement park may seem minor.

But the fact remains we are marshaling scarce public health and research
funds to fight a 20th century problem, rather than fully concentrating our
efforts on the breakthroughs of the 21st century.

The potential gravity of growing vaccine hesitancy for public health cannot be overstated; the science is clear. As part of our social contract, the medical research community has a responsibility to contribute their knowledge and expertise to clarify the science behind vaccine necessity and safety in a manner accessible to the public. This distillation and communication of research evidence is part of the essential role of physicians and scientists, skillfully navigating the unique concerns and perspectives of the individuals and communities they serve, while emphasizing the population health ramifications.

I'm not alone in suggesting External Link the medical community must weigh in on this issue to stave off further loss of public trust in the science of vaccines. In her 2011 Nature commentary " Target the Fence Sitters External Link", Julie Leask, Ph.D., Associate Professor at the University of Sydney School of Public Health and Senior Research Fellow at the National Centre for Immunization Research and Surveillance outlined communication strategies health professionals can use with vaccine hesitant parents. According to Leask, "committed, confident and knowledgeable health professionals are the cornerstone of successful immunization programs. Parents repeatedly rate them as their most trusted source of advice. So if doctors and nurses lose confidence, it can have a profound effect."

On February 5th, the Presidential Bioethics Commission met to consider recommendations for public health response based on lessons learned from the Ebola epidemic. Addressing the Commission External Link, Peter Hotez, M.D., Ph.D., Dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine and President of the Sabin Vaccine Institute, said he hopes the Ebola epidemic will prompt health officials in the U.S. and around the world to get ready for what he believes could be even more disruptive and deadly encounters with infectious disease in the near future.

As physicians and scientists, we have to ask ourselves, what will the downstream effects be if we don’t engage in this debate to describe and defend the soundness of our science?