The best critical thinkers can fall victim to misinformation—even nurses like me. I was recently reminded of a time I had been misguided when I read a news report of a pregnant nurse who had refused a flu shot and was subsequently fired. She based her decision not to receive the flu vaccine on Internet myths and outdated information, and as a result she lost her job for not complying with a new healthcare workers mandate. I empathized with this mother-to-be and fellow nurse. I had once been in her place–an anxious mother and concerned nurse being told to vaccinate or leave. But my story has a different ending than hers.
I wasn’t always an adamant public advocate for public health safety topics and immunizations. I viewed vaccines in the same light as any other medication that nurses distribute and administer. I studied immunizations in nursing school, knew the history of infectious diseases, and read about them occasionally in the nursing news updates. But it wasn’t until I was pregnant with my third son, during the H1N1 outbreaks, that I really started paying closer attention.
During the 2009 H1N1 outbreaks, I was very hesitant to get the “new” flu shot that was being talked about constantly in the media. My home state, New York, had plans to initiate a bill that would mandate all healthcare professionals to get the influenza vaccine or face being fired. Though I was a nurse, and had the related educational background, I was frightened and overwhelmed by the scare reports I saw on the evening news and anecdotal stories I was reading on the Internet.
At the same time, however, I was also concerned about protecting my unborn baby, and I knew I wouldn’t be able to escape having contact with the flu virus, especially with more than 60% of pediatric patients in my nursing unit at the time being hospitalized with flu or flu-like illness. I was really torn in my decision whether to vaccinate–or not vaccinate and lose my job as a pediatric nurse.
It was a conversation with my clinical nurse educator that opened my eyes to the dangers of Internet misinformation and pseudoscience. The discussion started with her expressing concern that I was one of the high-risk candidates eligible to receive the H1N1 influenza vaccine shot. She advised that I should get it as soon as possible–being pregnant placed me in the top category for complications. I replied that I had read the opposite on the internet: the articles I has seen said the vaccine was dangerous for pregnant mothers. I informed her I was opposed to the New York State mandate, being forced to get the H1N1 vaccine, and would not be getting the vaccine.
My clinical educator, being fully aware of the risks involved with a pregnant mother refusing a flu shot, took the time to review the sources I was basing my decision on. I pulled up the different websites and articles, and one by one she was able to debunk the incorrect claims, demonstrate why certain websites lacked credibility to provide medical information, and explain why anecdotal stories aren’t evidence-based research. I was shell-shocked and angry that I had been duped and swindled. I was a Registered Nurse, with a college education and nursing certifications, yet I was being misled by conspiracy sites and parenting blogs.
She then showed me accurate medical studies on the safety and effectiveness of not just the H1N1 vaccine, but also the annual influenza vaccine. She was able to demonstrate that the influenza vaccines were indeed safe, effective, and vital to protecting me and my baby, as well as my patients.
By the time my hospital had a supply of the vaccine, I was one of the first in line to receive the shot–thanks to my colleagues and educators who took time to answer my questions and clarify misconceptions. Unfortunately not all pregnant mothers had early access to the H1N1 vaccine, and as a result of contracting the flu, many, including a dear friend of mine, lost their unborn children when they suffered from miscarriages after contracting influenza.
My experience encouraged me to ensure my patients and their families knew the true risk influenza poses for pregnant mothers, infants, and the immunocompromised, as well as the importance of pregnant mothers getting flu shots during pregnancy in order to protect the baby and themselves.
I saw the need for nurses to sharpen their critical thinking skills and learn how to properly analyze news updates and educational information about immunizations— not just for the workplace but also for making personal medical decisions. This experience of mine was one of several reasons I created the organization Nurses Who Vaccinate. Nurses need support and encouragement to advocate and speak up for immunizations, not just among patients but among our co-workers and fellow nurses. Nurses Who Vaccinate provides a community where nurses and healthcare workers can collaborate to promote wellness and preventive interventions to keep communities healthy and vaccine-preventable disease-free. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to have a one-on-one discussion with an infectious disease specialist and my clinical nurse educator. Not all nurses have the access to specialists like I did. Thus they need to have the resources available to obtain updates and vaccine information, and that is the mission at Nurses Who Vaccinate.
Back to the pregnant nurse from the news article. It’s important to remember that this mother and her child still remain within the high-risk population for influenza complications. She places herself at higher risk still during this year’s influenza season, in which H1N1 cases are prevalent and widespread. As the newspapers report on unvaccinated young mothers dying and losing their children, I do hope that the nurse reconsiders. I hope she has access to a medically trained professional who can address her concerns, answer her influenza vaccines questions, and educate her on the importance of vaccinating herself while pregnant. If not, I hope that in her internet travels she stumbles across the Nurses Who Vaccinate blog post I wrote last year on the many studies that demonstrate that the flu shot is safe for pregnant mothers or this one written by Tara Haelle. I really do hope that accurate information about how safe and important the flu shot is for her and her baby reaches her before it’s too late.
Melody Butler lives on Long Island with her husband and four children. She is a Registered Nurse who works with children, and Shot@Life champion, and the founder of Nurses Who Vaccinate. She is also on the Parent Advisory Board for Voices for Vaccines.