Learning to Advocate

I get a lot of emails every day, but my favorite emails come from other parents who are reaching out to me as a peer looking for insight into the anti-vaccine movement. Some want advice on how to counter a particularly annoying anti-vaccine blog. Others have family members who will not vaccinate their children. Still others are amazed that an anti-vaccine movement exists and want to chat with me about it. I love these emails. I love that everyday parents are thinking about ways to take on this very vocal anti-vaccine movement.

For far too long, we, as vaccinating parents, have gladly ceded our place in vaccine conversations. We’ve stood on the sidelines while reporters interviewed vaccine refusers and let them stand in for the parent voice. We’ve assumed that public health officials and scientists and doctors would do the vaccine explaining to the world–that we could be done at the end of each well-child appointment and never had to consider it again.

I’ve no doubt those days are done. Judging by my in-box and the Voices for Vaccine Facebook page and the new pro-vaccine blogs popping up, the pro-vaccine parent voice has staked a claim in the conversation, and we aren’t going away.

998195_410989845687629_1440879725_nBut I didn’t realize how pervasive our claim was until a neighbor brought up vaccines. I knew she vaccinated her children because she had mentioned before needing to get them in for their shots. She had mentioned it in a normal, neighborhood-mom-on-sidewalk conversation. So when she turned to me in a discussion about science denialism, and said, “And what is up with those anti-vaccine people?,” I knew I had shirked some duty, and here was my neighbor teaching me a thing or two about advocacy.

You see, she didn’t know me as the Vaccine Lady. (In fact, my reply to her was, “Oh, you don’t realize that I’m the Vaccine Lady?”) I had never brought up vaccines to her. I had listened to her bring them up and was encouraging in my approval, but I hadn’t begun any conversations with my her.

This confession is a little embarrassing considering that I spend my days convincing parents that in order to be good advocates, all they need to do is to normalize immunization in their communities. I do believe that we need to make discussing vaccines the norm, and the value of immunizing children the default opinion. When we ceded our place at the discussion years back, we left space for a sub-culture of anti-vaxxers to emerge, where they could discuss vaccine refusal while other parents respected their choice, so to speak. We let them be too comfortable sharing anti-vaccine misinformation because when it came to vaccines, too few vaccinating parents were saying anything.

I wrote recently that we can do something about measles outbreaks. We can tell the world we vaccinate our children. We can make vaccinating the default position to take in a discussion the way accepting diversity or being kind to others is a default position. We can all do a better job of making vaccines part of polite conversation–even those of us who are hammering away at it all day every day.

My neighbors need to know that I advocate for immunization. And yours need to know, as well. If we aren’t telling them, we may as well give our chair at the table up to someone who wants to fill their ears with falsehoods and anti-vaccine misinformation.

Note: Please join me on August 6 at noon EDT (9 am Pacific) to discuss Vaccine Advocacy 101 and how we can all work together to make a difference. (Details about registration here.)
Karen Ernst is Voices for Vaccines’ Mother-in-Charge.