Lori Kestenbaum, MD

is a fellow in Pediatric Infectious Diseases at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. She graduated with a BS in Psychology from Duke University and received her MD from the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. She completed her residency in Pediatrics at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia in 2012.  She is currently a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Pediatric Infectious Diseases Society and the Infectious Diseases Society of America. Follow her on Twitter @lorikestenbaum.

Misplaced fear

When it comes to Ebola, the public is demonstrating its fear and paranoia with measures ranging from buying personal hazmat suits to excluding children from schools who were in countries next to countries with Ebola. Government officials are quarantining individuals. The media is reporting about “shelved vaccines” and the need to now rush these vaccines through research and development. This is in bizarre contradiction to the increasing resistance to well-studied vaccines that prevent the diseases that actually pose a risk to children.

Ebola virus is highly unlikely to infect anyone in this country except health professionals or caregivers taking care of patients with Ebola. However, there are a number of diseases that will without a doubt kill people in the United States this year, including pneumococcus, influenza, and pertussis. Parents remain more fearful of vaccines than these endemic, deadly diseases. Influenza alone will kill 50,000 people. Why are people scared of Ebola, and not influenza? It doesn’t make sense.

I took care of an immunocompromised patient this week with varicella-zoster virus. Her parents had decided when she was born not to vaccinate her due to the fear of autism. Once she started an immunomodulator, the parents were fearful that her immune system couldn’t handle any vaccines. Unfortunately, a family member had chickenpox, which she then acquired. My patient required hospitalization for IV acyclovir, complicated by acute kidney injury.

This was all preventable. However, just as we are seeing with Ebola, misinformation led the parents astray. The parents told me about everything they had read on the Internet, and how confused they had been. After I sat down and talked with the family for 5 minutes, many of these misperceptions were clarified, and the parents readily agreed to catch all of their children up on vaccines.

So how did society lose its reliance on science and logic, and instead turn to fear and emotion? The perpetuation of misinformation on the Internet and media continues to confuse and worry the public so that it cannot assess true health risks. The 24/7 media coverage creates fear and frenzy, and unfortunately, the more news agencies report, the more they find individuals who will read or listen to fearful stories. Reporters should be impartial, but news agencies also need to keep their audience.

What can we do? As the media continues to flood the public with information, we have to overwhelm people with scientific information, as well. Parents just have a few questions to ask, and they need those precious minutes of your time. Sure, you may end up a little behind in your schedule that day, or writing your notes a little bit later, but if you remove a parent’s fear and move a vaccine-hesitant family toward vaccine acceptance, you have potentially saved a life.