In public health, as at faith, the goal is not to make people feel more guilty

Thank you for the insightful article on vaccine safety. You’re turning the stigma off with your interviews that prompted such extreme reactions from almost every angle. I have to first say how disturbed I…

In public health, as at faith, the goal is not to make people feel more guilty

Thank you for the insightful article on vaccine safety. You’re turning the stigma off with your interviews that prompted such extreme reactions from almost every angle.

I have to first say how disturbed I was that the article didn’t name Katie Obermueller, an HPV vaccine mom. Was it that the doctor didn’t know who she was? I don’t know, I couldn’t find out.

What I was curious about was why Katie couldn’t get kids to vaccinate. My best guess is that parents don’t want to take the time, or the embarrassment, to find out if their children will live to fight another day after getting any kind of vaccine.

I met Katie a few years ago in Seattle at an event sponsored by The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. We were talking about anti-vaccine parents in the (mostly rural) Pacific Northwest when I heard from her on our KIRO radio show.

When we flew together, my friend Andrew Tuerck thought we would be trekking to a tobacco farm. Somehow we found ourselves winding through the Seattle park system and into Mount Baker. Each time, I would put on shorts and workout socks to avoid local mosquitoes. Katie came with her supplies: a tennis bag with a tent, macaroni and cheese and boiled chicken for dinner. She had grabbed her sports bra, t-shirt and jeans and carried them as she walked, as she knew we would need something over our leggings.

The No. 1 job in the Western half of the United States is vaccine distribution. Most of us who work for The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation are specifically asked to go to areas that have not seen widespread vaccination. We’re the ones that bring infants the first of the yearly vaccines, the ones who transport vaccines to restaurants and bars, the ones that drive pregnant women the state line back to Colorado to vaccinate at 5 a.m. The conversations that accompany them — where to get milk in the North Park neighborhood and where not to cross a road to get the flu shot — are always informed.

In the Midwest, where I live now, we often see so many deer and squirrels we’re sure to get sick, so it’s not surprising that anti-vaccine parents feel that there must be harm on vaccine routes.

What I like about Emma, though, is that she can interview people without being political or judgmental. She takes the faith in science and makes it understandable.

I remember my first time reading another one of her stories, where she took a look at Michele Bachmann and the controversy she created over the HPV vaccine. We talked on the show about the reasons that Bachmann told her congregants she wouldn’t vaccinate their girls and how this fed a national conversation about vaccine efficacy. I would mention it to people who were reticent about vaccines, saying, “Hey, so I understand why Michele Bachmann felt bad about people’s kids getting vaccines. What do you think?”

My feeling is that the anti-vaccine movement is a lot like the anti-abortion movement. People who aren’t pro-choice are against abortion because they want to protect women, though they don’t do it at all costs. The same sentiment goes for people who are anti-vaccine because they want to protect children.

Here’s the bottom line. When I go to a clinic or dentist, I know I am protecting my own health, and that of everyone in my family. I’m concerned about the health of my neighbors, my church friends and my coworkers.

After our appearance on our morning radio show, a woman called in to say she took HPV vaccines, then got pregnant with an HIV-positive baby. As an occupational health nurse, I was interested to hear this story and I get e-mails from mothers who say the same thing — that they had a vaccine and only got pregnant by bad choices.

I love what Emma Teitel has done here, and it reminds me that public health, at its best, is about finding solutions to everyone’s problems, not pointing fingers.

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