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Can we move on?

By CHADI NABHAN MD, MBA, FACP

Every so often, my cynical self emerges from the dead. Maybe it’s a byproduct of social media, or from following Saurabh Jha, who pontificates about everything from Indian elections to the Brexit fiasco. Regardless, there are times when my attempts at refraining from being opinionated are successful, but there are rare occasions when they are not. Have I earned the right to opine freely about moving on from financial toxicity, anti-vaxers, who has ‘skin in the game’ when it comes to the health care system, the patient & their data, and if we should call patients “consumers”? You’ll have to decide.

I endorse academic publications; they can be stimulating and may delve into more research and are essential if you crave academic recognition. I also enjoy listening to live debates and podcasts, as well as reading, social media rants, but some of the debates and publications are annoying me. I have tried to address some of them in my own podcast series “Outspoken Oncology” as a remedy, but my remedy was no cure. Instead, I find myself typing away these words as a last therapeutic intervention.

Here are my random thoughts on the topics that have been rehashed & restated all over social media outlets (think: Twitter feeds, LinkedIn posts, Pubmed articles, the list goes on), that you will simply find no way out. Disclaimer, these are NOT organized by level of importance but simply based on what struck me over the past week as grossly overstated issues in health care.  Forgive my blunt honesty.

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Everyone Has a Part to Play in Ending Vaccine Hesitancy

Heidi L. Pottinger DrPH, MPH, MA
Felicia D. Goodrum PhD

By FELICIA D. GOODRUM STERLING, PhD and HEIDI L. POTTINGER, DrPH, MPH, MA

The measles outbreak in Washington state this week has brought new attention to the anti-vaccine movement.  In fact, the World Health Organization recently identified “vaccine hesitancy” as one of top threats to global health. In the US, the number of unvaccinated children has quadrupled since 2001, enabling the resurgence of infectious diseases long-since controlled.  In fact, the WHO claims a staggering 1.5 million deaths could be prevented worldwide by improved vaccination rates.

Amidst the media and public health outcry, a mystery persists:  Why has vaccine hesitancy continued, despite years of vigorous debunking of shoddy science?  The answer may lie in a deeply-rooted distrust of doctors and science.

One of the authors of this article, Dr. Pottinger, surveyed hundreds of Arizona parents, from schools with exemption rates greater than 10%, about their perceptions on vaccines. Pottinger and colleagues found the vast majority of the parents surveyed who delayed or chose not to vaccinate their children did so because of true personal beliefs and not convenience.  Specifically, they tended to distrust physicians and information about vaccines or held misperceptions about health and disease, including the idea that immunity by natural infection is more effective or that vaccine-preventable diseases are not severe.

These beliefs, stoked by a fraudulent 2010 study, have proven almost impossible to shake—despite the fact that the debunked study, based on 12 children, was retracted due to serious ethical violations and scientific misrepresentation; authors cherry-picked and fabricated data, and the first author had undisclosed business interests in the vaccine industry.

The failure of many interventions to dispel misinformation demonstrates the power of a complex interaction of confirmation bias, cognitive dissonance, distrust in data sources, and personal experiences and narratives.  Taking them on requires that the healthcare community effectively spread the following messages.

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The Luxury to Choose

The 80 year-old woman lay on her mat, her legs powerless, looking up at the small group that had come to visit her. There were no more treatment options left. The oral liquid morphine we had brought in the small plastic bottle had blunted her pain. But, she would be dead in the coming days. The cervical cancer that was slowly taking her life is a notoriously horrible disease if left undetected and untreated and that is exactly what had happened in this case.

We had traveled hours by van along dirt roads to this village with a team of health workers from Hospice Africa Uganda, the country’s authority on end-of-life care, to visit the woman. She was the second patient of a similar condition I would see that afternoon.

Back home, seeing an 80 year-old woman with advanced cervical cancer, let alone two in the same day, was exceedingly rare. In high-income countries, cervical cancer is a largely treatable disease, especially when caught in the early stages. And it is now preventable thanks to a widely accessible vaccine against Human Papillomavirus (HPV), the infectious agent that causes most cervical cancers, called Gardasil, which is recommended for all pre-teens in the United States.

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Twitter Study of Vaccine Messages: Opinions Are Contagious, But In Unexpected Ways

Remember 2009? The H1N1 pandemic we were all waiting for? I do. I was pregnant; H1N1 was particularly risky for pregnant women. The vaccine wasn’t available until after I had my baby, but when they held a clinic an hour north of where I live, I brought my husband there so we could both get our shots. My infant son was too young to be vaccinated, so I wanted to protect him through herd immunity.

study came out recently on twitter messages from that time. How did pro-vaccine sentiments spread, versus anti-vaccine ones? Which messages were more contagious?

I talked to one of the authors, Marcel Salathe, today. He’s an infectious disease researcher studying the spread and transmission, not (just) of disease, but of information. “We assume people infect each other with opinions about vaccinations,” he said, and the H1N1 scare was a good opportunity to put some of his group’s theories to the test.

They collected nearly half a million tweets about the H1N1 flu vaccine. In 2009, H1N1 wasn’t included in the regular flu shot, and became available partway through flu season as a separate dose. With a possible pandemic looming, people had plenty of motivation to get the vaccine and encourage others to get it—butanti-vaccine sentiments were in circulation too.

The result, striking but perhaps not surprising: negative opinions were more contagious than positive ones. (Specifically, someone who read a lot of anti-vaccine messages was more likely to follow up by tweeting or retweeting negative messages of their own.)

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How to Stop a Future Cancer Epidemic

The theory of preventative care, including inoculations, is that we spend a little money now to offset big expenses later in life.  But sometimes behavioral friction keeps this from happening, even when the technologies and approaches are proven.  We are witnessing such a failure right now with regard to Human Papilloma Virus (HPV).

Here’s the story, from MGH’s James Michaelson, PH.D., arguably one of the most thoughtful, trustworthy, and sensible researchers in the field of analysis of cancer survival.  Jim and his team develop sophisticated mathematical methods for predicting the risk of local, regional, and distant recurrence.  He says:

There are a couple of good papers about Human Papilloma Virus (HPV), and the coming epidemic (yes, an overused term, but truly applicable here) of head and neck cancer. As Chaturvedi et al say in a recent paper: “If recent incidence trends continue, the annual number of HPV-positive oropharyngeal cancers is expected to surpass the annual number of cervical cancers by the year 2020.”

I get to see this problem from two angles: From my work as the the manager of the MGH/MEEI Head and Neck Cancer Database, and  from my experiments in using computer telephone messages to get patients in for preventive health services, such as the fabulous HPV Vaccines: Cervarix (from GlaxoSmithKline) and Gardasil (from Merck). The vaccines are incredibly underutilized. Only about 1% of eligible boys and only 50% of eligible girls get one shot.  Only about 25% of girls get all three shots.

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Heroin Vaccine Won’t Cure What Ails Addicts

My aunt Marion is in the hospital dying of liver and kidney failure, the result of her 20-year struggle with heroin use. I was told of her imminent death the same day news broke about a vaccine against the drug. “Breakthrough heroin vaccine could render drug ‘useless’ in addicts,” one headline read. “Scientists create vaccine against heroin high,” proclaimed another.

Meanwhile, my aunt finds temporary relief in the ever more frequent administration of opiate pain medication — the very kind of drugs she used illegally.

The idea of an anti-addiction vaccine is not new. For nearly 40 years scientists have been working on vaccines against all kinds of addictions, including nicotine, marijuana and alcohol. There are even trials of vaccines to prevent obesity. None of the anti-addiction vaccines has yet received Food and Drug Administration approval, however, and most of the studies are still in their early stages.

The headlines trumpeting a heroin vaccine were based on a finding that the drug had proved to be effective on mice during trials in Mexico (a nation that could use some good news related to drugs). Scientists now plan to test the patented vaccine in humans. If all goes well, the vaccine could be available in five years — too late for my aunt but providing a glimmer of hope for the estimated 1 million heroin addicts in the United States. Perhaps.

Six years ago, when I was a doctoral student researching heroin addiction in northern New Mexico, I received an email from a scientist studying a possible vaccine against the drug’s use. The study was in rat models, but early results were promising and suggested the likelihood of a therapeutic effect for humans. Aware of the devastating heroin epidemic in New Mexico, which had the highest rate of heroin-related deaths in the Unites States, and of my work trying to understand it, the scientist wanted to offer some hope. He wrote that he could imagine a time when heroin addiction, in New Mexico and around the world, would be a thing of the past. I wanted to believe him, but I was less optimistic.

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