“Dr. Miller, what is your opinion about vaccinations?” comes the reply.
The big can of worms has been opened, but I expect this midway through each semester as we complete our study of the body’s immune system in my Anatomy and Physiology undergraduate course. Many of my students are parents and with all of the media (both positive and negative) regarding vaccines the last several years, they are questioning this pediatric rite-of-passage. As they should, I say. Just the question shows me that they are beginning to think critically regarding the function of the human body and its relationship to the environment. I do not think giving my opinion is a good idea. I do, however, want them to have the opportunity to make informed decisions regarding the health of their families with properly vetted resources.
A very good tool that can be printed and distributed for free to any interested student can be found right here at the LifeSciTRC. A number of years ago the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services published this excellent booklet and made it free to the general public: Understanding Vaccines. This booklet is also a useful tool for follow-up and review when teaching the immune system. Most of it is presented in easy to understand language for the lay person. It covers microbes, what vaccines are, the public health aspect of vaccination, the immune system, and more. There’s also a great glossary in the back. The only problem with the booklet is that it was published over 10 years ago, and there have been many scientific discoveries and changes regarding this subject since its publication. As an alternative or together with the booklet, students can be directed to the online version which is updated regularly here: NIH Understanding Vaccines Website.
In addition to giving students these resources, I do discuss the purpose of vaccines. I find it is especially important that they hear and understand that vaccines do carry some risks, but their benefits far outweigh the risks in general. I want them to also understand that vaccinating people is a public health issue. Vaccinated people not only receive protection themselves, but help to protect those that cannot be vaccinated for various reasons, thus protecting their entire community from the return of devastating diseases. The booklet does a great job describing how community immunity or the lack thereof affects diseases in the “You and Your Community” section.
Another important point I like to make is regarding continuing to receive vaccines for diseases we haven’t seen in quite a while here in the U. S. This does not mean the diseases no longer exist, as many, such as measles, still strike in other areas of the world. Our world is becoming smaller and smaller, and by this I mean it is very easy for people to travel to nearly any place and become infected with a disease for which we have a vaccine. When the person comes home, they can begin to spread the disease throughout their families and communities, if the vaccine rate has dropped below optimal in that area. We can now also discuss the past scare of Ebola, which has no vaccine, coming to the United States and bring home the point of the need for vaccines. We cannot always know where the person standing next to us and our children at the grocery line, in church, or at school has been lately or if they’re up to date on their vaccines.
When you are asked the question, “What about vaccines?” do not shy away from it in your classrooms. Instead, try these well-vetted resources that you can study yourself and share with your students. It will be well worth the time and effort.
- Understanding Vaccines (Booklet) – http://www.lifescitrc.org/resource.cfm?submissionID=5774
- Understanding Vaccines (Website) http://www.niaid.nih.gov/topics/vaccines/understanding/Pages/Default.aspx
- Easy to Read Immunization Schedules for Children – http://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/schedules/easy-to-read/child.html
- A Universal Vaccine (Article) – http://www.lifescitrc.org/resource.cfm?submissionID=7414
Deborah Miller, D.C., is a LifeSciTRC Scholar and Fellow who teaches undergraduate Anatomy & Physiology at Chattahoochee Technical College. She is also a member of the Physiology Educator Community of Practice (PECOP) and serves on the 2015 LifeSciTRC Advisory Board.