As a new mom, I have to admit one of the harder things I’ve had to do was hold my son as he received his first set of vaccinations (and subsequent vaccinations) – to see the surprise on his face and then the tears were enough to bring this momma nearly to tears herself. But we hugged it out, and both of us were on to laughing and playing minutes later. I spent a lot of time reading about vaccinations while I was pregnant and in the first several months of motherhood, and there is a lot out there – do it or not do it? Are they safe? When should you do it? Should you space them out more than is typically recommended? Should you do separate vaccinations or are the grouped shots ok? There seem to be as many questions as answers. But despite the many questions I had about vaccines, I never questioned whether I would give them to my son. I’ve seen the effects of polio for my cousin who had the disease as a young child, and I know the great harm that can result. Rather, my questions stem from what happens to a public health imperative when the perceived risk seems to be fading.
I am fortunate to be raising my son in a world where many health risks no longer exist because we have been successful in eradicating the disease. We’ve moved from a model of intervention (for the most part and in some parts of the world) with these diseases that are inoculated through vaccinations to prevention. But as the perceived risk has declined, so has the urgency to take action. When we have the opportunity for not worrying about an impending outbreak, many start to consider whether the disadvantages (time, money, pain, side effects) outweigh the benefits (immunity). Recently, the Council on Foreign Relations released an interactive map illustrating vaccine-preventable outbreaks from 2006 to the present. It’s a striking visual look at the decision to decline vaccinations and that ripple effect.
This is not a phenomenon that is isolated to vaccinations; in fact this is almost an evergreen topic. For example, applying it to food – when food is abundant, we can be selective about what kind of food we want to eat, the ingredients, the processing, and the packaging. And we can focus on preventing or avoiding perceived risks. But when food is not abundant, the concern shifts more to getting food, no matter what kind.
As a social marketer, this is a dilemma that we do, and will, face in perpetuity. As we start to make progress against public health crises – whether that be through vaccinations, food security, or even violence prevention – and as we continue to shift our thinking and our policies towards prevention from intervention, I leave you with these questions: how do we continue to make progress? Are responses to public health crises cyclical, tied to time and space? Are we destined for a 2-steps-forward-1-step-back model? How does success change when we’re talking about intervention versus prevention? What are your thoughts?