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Speaking up for vaccination: five minutes with…Peter Hotez

BMJ 2018; 363 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.k5117 (Published 03 December 2018) Cite this as: BMJ 2018;363:k5117
  1. Sophie Arie
  1. London, UK

The professor and dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, in Texas, explains to Sophie Arie why he’s written a book about his daughter

“I became alarmed at the sharp drops in vaccine coverage. Children are now dying because of the “anti-vax” movement. Most of the children who died in the latest influenza epidemic in the US weren’t vaccinated.1

“The anti-vax movement is extremely well organised, with huge funding and bandwidth. There are 480 anti-vaccine websites. Of course, people are challenging their paediatricians because of what they’ve read.

“But there is general silence on the pro-vaccine side. The US government has been conspicuously silent. Unicef and the World Health Organization are not recognising the threat this poses to low and middle income countries.

“We have enabled this by refusing to recognise that public engagement is important for scientists. When I was doing my training the message was ‘you’re not supposed to engage the public.’ It was seen as self promotion. It may be that it’s just not in the DNA of our profession. But if you are silent you won’t achieve your goals. We have to speak up.

“I’ve written my book, Vaccines Did Not Cause Rachel’s Autism, as a vaccine scientist, a paediatrician, and an autism dad.2 I’ve just spoken in simple, declarative language which is not what we scientists are taught to do. I’ve written about my personal experience and I’ve just said, ‘vaccines don’t cause autism’ and here’s why. The Institute of Medicine would say something like ‘the preponderance of evidence today cannot show any clear link between vaccines and autism.’ That sounds to a lay person like hedging.

“I’m hoping it can make as much difference as a book can make for parents who are sitting on the fence, for paediatricians who are feeling under siege, and journalists who still frame this as a ‘debate’ when there is no debate.

“Colleagues are supporting me privately but not speaking out themselves. The anti-vax movement is very aggressive. Who wants to receive an email while standing in line for their morning bagel to find themselves being compared to Hitler? It’s not very nice.

“We need to give physicians and scientists the tools and training to communicate. It’s good that some grants for funding now demand that you provide an advocacy plan for your science. This needs to become part of the way we think.”

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