The current Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo is deeply unsettling, having already killed more than two dozen people. In the 2015 outbreak in West Africa that spread to this country as well, thousands fell ill, and more than 11,000 individuals died.
Imagine if a vaccine had been available during that time for high-risk populations. Today, thanks to the commitment of resources and resulting scientific progress, an experimental Ebola vaccine is in use to help contain the outbreak in the Congo.
Historically, vaccines have prevented a host of illnesses and saved millions of lives. Given the resurgence of Ebola and the costly toll of preventable diseases like influenza and measles, it is not surprising that a high percentage of Americans (85 percent) say they are in favor of increased federal spending for research to improve and find new vaccines, according to a new national public opinion survey commissioned by Research!America.
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On the other hand, I was astonished to learn from the same survey that only about six in 10 Americans (59 percent) strongly believe that they have benefited from the development of vaccines over the last 50 years, a 16 percentage point decrease compared to a decade ago.
This finding points to a need for more public education about the value of vaccines. A stunning outbreak of measles a few years ago, driven by visits to Disneyland by unvaccinated children, is only one example of the folly of assuming that once ubiquitous and deadly diseases are no longer with us. Only vaccines keep them at bay.
Whether it is failure to realize this, or the mistaken belief that individual choice doesn’t impact the health of others, is akin to thinking that our water supply is inherently pure and does not require constant public health vigilance, or that if only a few people washed their hands, they would prevent the spread of disease. On a positive note, many survey respondents agree (61 percent) that when parents decide not to vaccinate, it puts their children and their communities at risk, a 10 percentage point increase from 2008.
The measles vaccine is one of many examples of how research for health has saved lives. That’s why it’s difficult to comprehend a reluctance among some Americans to take advantage of the lifesaving benefits of vaccines. More than half of those surveyed (53 percent) said they did not get the flu vaccine during the last flu season. Among those who said no, 48 percent said they do not trust the flu vaccine; 40 percent said they do not feel they need it to prevent the flu; and 26 percent said the flu vaccine is not effective and therefore not worth getting. There could be many factors influencing public opinion, including the safety and efficacy of vaccines.
The new survey, supported in part by the American Society for Microbiology, also revealed that a declining percentage of Americans — 77 percent rather than 85 percent a decade ago — are confident in the current system in the United States for evaluating the safety of vaccines and recommendations for when they should be given. And roughly two-thirds (67 percent), down from 78 percent, are confident that the current system ensures an adequate supply of necessary vaccines to prevent shortages.
The survey suggests, in several ways, that Americans’ confidence in vaccines is slipping, even as support for research to combat disease is strong. It is important to take these survey results seriously.
The question is: How do we address those concerns?
State and federal science and health agencies — like the National Institutes of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration — patient groups, researchers and health care providers must all do a better job communicating the value of vaccines to the general public. The public is more likely to say it has heard about vaccines in the media (54 percent) or via the internet (45 percent) than from a health care provider (41 percent).
It is time for more substantive conversations with citizens about vaccines if we are to understand and address their concerns. The best place to start a productive dialogue is with the mutual goal of finding solutions to what ails us.
There will always be sources of misinformation about science and medicine, but in modern society, the accelerated pace of communication accentuates the bad as well as the good — all the more reason to articulate why vaccinations are essential to protecting our nation’s health. We must continue to build trust with the public to ensure that Americans recognize the benefits of vaccinations for their own health, and the health of their children, families and loved ones.
Mary Woolley is the president and CEO of Research!America, a nonprofit advocacy alliance dedicated to making research to improve health, and she is an elected member of the National Academy of Medicine.
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