Kevin Dahlman recalls becoming a doctor for the first time, ahead of parents concerned about giving their children the usual battery of childhood vaccines.
“When I was in residency, I thought I would get into the practice and convince all parents who are hesitant to get vaccinated,” said Dahlman, now a pediatrician and medical director at Aurora Children’s Health. “But I soon learned that it is not so crazy and dry.”
He said there are many reasons why parents hesitate about vaccines, and his job is to listen respectfully to understand those reasons – even though he is confident in their safety and effectiveness.
As the COVID-19 vaccination campaign continues in the United States, enough injections are now available to fully vaccinate every person 16 and older. Health experts say the people most excited about getting vaccinated are already through the process or are just waiting for their second injection. From the first week of May, more than 43% of Wisconsinites have been given at least one chance; 35% are fully vaccinated.
The next step is to work with those who are hesitant to get vaccinated – not totally opposed and unwilling to talk about it, but concerned and undecided.
That’s where pediatricians can come in.
Children who are 16 or 17 years old are currently approved to receive the Pfizer vaccine, and the FDA approved its use in 12 to 15 year olds on Monday. But vaccines for people under 12 are in the testing phase.
The bigger role is to consult with parents about how to take care of themselves, and bring up the topic of the COVID-19 vaccine, even if they are officially only examining their children.
Pediatricians are more experienced than other doctors in talking to people who have questions about what gets into their bodies or their children’s bodies, especially vaccines. And they are often reliable resources for parents, who are comfortable sharing their expertise in an effective way.
“I ask parents if they have considered getting vaccinated and we talk about their concerns,” said Kristin Bencik-Boudreau, a pediatrician at Bayshore Pediatrics. “It opens the conversation, and even when they hesitate, they listen because I’m someone they trust with their child.”
Vaccines are often the target of disinformation campaigns and conspiracy theories and the COVID vaccines are no different.
“This pandemic has caused fear in everyone, and a common response to anything that triggers fear is denial,” said Paul Veldhouse, pediatrician at Forest View Pediatrics. “That has caused many people to go to the wrong places on the Internet and receive a lot of misinformation.”
When a patient comes to him with misinformation about the vaccine, Veldhouse talks to him, calls him back and refers him to reliable health websites – which also works.
“I have a good relationship with my patients,” said Veldhouse. “I can always give them a cutout bit of time to come to me with questions and concerns.”
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ campaign to increase COVID vaccination supports that anecdotal evidence that vaccine hesitation can be combated when trusted people – family members, doctors, ministers – share their trust in the COVID vaccine.
Bencik-Boudreau said that in a year when many parents felt helpless, vaccination is finally something proactive parents can do to protect their children.
“I am telling parents their children cannot be vaccinated yet, so we really need to take steps to protect them,” Bencik-Boudreau said. “It is a powerful message for parents to realize that this is the most important thing they can do to protect their children.”
Veldhouse does the same in his practice. He said most of his patients who got COVID got it from their parents rather than from school or daycare. He said it is very attractive to be able to tell parents that if they are vaccinated, “the chances of their children getting it are greatly reduced.”
‘Nothing comes without risk’
Bencik-Boudreau says the main concern she faces is that the process to develop and approve the vaccines has gone too fast, not enough testing has been done, and so we don’t know the long-term effects of the vaccines.
She answers those questions in two ways: by explaining the science behind the approval process, and by comparing the risks of the vaccine with the risks of COVID.
She explains that the emergency use license requires all typical steps of authorization for any vaccine, including clinical trials for both safety and efficacy. The process was faster than usual because so much money and research was spent on it.
“The only thing we don’t know about the vaccine is its long-term effects, but most of the effects of a vaccine have now been found,” says Bencik-Boudreau. “And I also remind people that we are starting to understand some of the long-term effects of COVID, and they are not good for a lot of people.”
Bencik-Boudreau said she finds those comparisons helpful in convincing people who are hesitant to vaccinate.
“I had a person today who said, ‘I just don’t trust it.’ I told them I can understand that, but we need to look at what is happening with COVID, ”said Bencik-Boudreau. “If you get COVID, these are the chances of hospitalization or death. If you get the vaccine, your chances of hospitalization or death are much lower. That information side by side can be very valuable to see.”
Dahlman explains to the parents of his patients that the benefit-risk analysis of taking the COVID vaccine is no different from what parents and pediatricians do every day when making health decisions for children.
“I help parents to see that nothing comes without risk, not even the decision to treat something like an ear infection with antibiotics,” Dahlman said. “We understand that the long-term effects of the COVID vaccine are unknown, but we take that into account when we say that the risks of COVID outweigh the risks of the vaccine.”
Share personal decisions
Veldhouse says he has felt a sense of relief since being fully vaccinated and is getting a taste of what a return to normal life might feel like. And he tells parents about that feeling.
“One of the first things I tell parents who may not trust vaccines in general is to talk to their healthcare friends and their doctors to see if they get vaccinated,” Veldhouse said. ‘All health workers I know are vaccinated. I got it, my wife got it. The fear subsides when you get your injections. ‘
Veldhouse also has a 16-year-old foster child who has been vaccinated, and his 12-year-old will be first in line if the vaccine is approved for younger adolescents.
Bencik-Boudreau feels the same. She has recommended the vaccine to her 16- and 17-year-old patients and tells them that her own 16-year-old has been vaccinated.
An interesting development is that the damage COVID has done has turned them from anti-vaxxers to believers for some families. A common reason for parental reluctance is that epidemics of vaccine-preventable diseases usually no longer occur. As a result, people become complacent; they don’t see the damage from polio, for example, so they don’t worry about it.
“Now people can see what happens when a disease occurs and how it changes everyone’s life,” said Veldhouse.
Dahlman said a few of his patients’ parents had so far refused vaccinations for their children. Not only have they told him they want their kids to get the COVID vaccine when it’s approved, but they’ve also started catching up with their kids on other vaccines.
Contact Amy Schwabe at (262) 875-9488 or [email protected] Follow her on Twitter at @WisFamilyJS, Instagram at @wisfamilyjs, or Facebook at WisconsinFamily.
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