I’ve just returned from a week in Idaho where I had the privilege to do a series of talks for the Idaho Department of Health (DOH) about using social media to communicate about vaccines. The best part of the week was all of the education I received. I traveled around the state (see those photos!), witnessed the DOH at work, connected with Idaho physicians & politicians & advocates & volunteers, and talked with many Idahoans about changing the understanding of vaccine science. Three times I heard Dr Melinda Wharton from the CDC present on vaccine safety. And more, in a matter of 4 days we talked with a clinician, nurse, or medical assistant from every single office in the state that provides vaccines to children. I mean, that’s a wow–a sincerely networked community circa 2012.

If all states had the opportunity to convene like they do in Idaho we’d really improve understanding, communication, and opportunities in health care surrounding vaccine safety and decision-making.

After arriving home to my boys, I’m compelled to share 3 things I learned in Idaho:

ONE:

I think it’s essential that we talk about the risks associated with vaccines when we give them–each and every time. Dr Wharton discussed known risks to vaccines and the science to support those risks. She also talked about inferred risks that aren’t backed up with science (autism, for example).

Take fainting: we know teens faint after shots sometimes. However we also know that infants & toddlers don’t. It’s not the fainting that’s really worrisome (no longterm side effect other than the terrible memory!), rather the injuries that arise from a fall when a teen faints. If you know your teen is concerned, anxious, or worried about the shots, the likelihood of fainting increases. So, ask to wait in the exam room or waiting area for 15 minutes after the shots are done. Monitor for any wooziness or dizziness. We can better prepare to avoid the risks (injuries) from vaccines by controlling the side effect (fainting). While most of the risks Dr Wharton reviewed were known to me, a few were new. And it got me thinking, we must update, list out, and discuss risks of immunizations, just like we discuss the benefits. We can’t be scared to detail what we know. We all need an annual update like they get in Idaho.

Over the years, I’ve heard physicians, nurses, and assistants discussing their opinion that detailing risks and side effects from vaccines only scares families. I tend to disagree. Dr Wharton stated, “Vaccine safety is a shared responsibility.” She asserted it’s our (physicians’) responsibility to share what we know, to have clinicians and staff observe protocol and carefully store and dose vaccines, and the family’s responsibility to discuss side effects, allergies, and family history/medical conditions. Together we improve safety.

It’s when we have an open, informed discussion about vaccines that we increase trust in our partnerships. Yesterday in clinic I listed out more risks than I typically do when helping families with immunization decisions. This is because of my week in Idaho. I think it’s these risks, coupled with the nod to the profound benefit of vaccinations, that allows families to make truly informed decisions. As a mom, I also sincerely believe this is when we feel good about immunizing our children.

TWO:

Idaho is exceptionally beautiful. The land is arid in Southern Idaho, but brushed with snow-trimmed mountaintops in the distance. There is space to breathe and a pace to roam. After a talk in Idaho Falls, we traveled across the state by car on a small highway. On our way to Boise, we stopped at Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve, we spotted elk and antelope, we ate pickles from a small town diner, and we traveled through many rural communities. Again, I was reminded how the world looks very different in each of its corners. Travel is education.

THREE:

Vaccine-preventable diseases still occur. On Friday I got to hear Dr Jean Prince, a pediatrician in Coeur d’Alene, present 3 cases of vaccine-preventable diseases she’d seen in her own personal practice. She discussed a 6 week-old baby hospitalized in the ICU with pertussis (whooping cough), an infant in the ICU with rotavirus and severe neurologic complications, and a 1 year-old with meningitis.

She had a parent from her practice, Greg, tell Maddy’s story. Maddy is a little girl who died of meningococcal septicemia, a deadly complication to bacterial meningitis. Her father told the story of her getting sick the day after Christmas and essentially dying later that night. Although the story was agonizing to hear, it was empowering to see a father tell the story of his beloved little girl. I was once again reminded that those stories, those of horrific disease, need to shared, too. I’m fortunate I’ve only seen meningococcal septicemia once in my lifetime. Thanks in part to immunization, I have limited experience with meningococcal disease.

But it was a father’s love for truth and celebration that sticks with me today. Midway through his story, Greg provided the true staccato to his talk, “Oh, I love to talk about Maddy.”

It’s those moments that define unconditional love and remind us of the enduring power of stories and great luxury to raise our children in a time of vaccines. Like so many who have endured unthinkable illness, he wants no parent to suffer the loss he did. By telling Maddy’s story he changes the odds. We immunize for meningococcal infections at age 11 years and then again at age 16. All of us have improved protection when our adolescents get vaccinated.

So I wonder, will you travel to Idaho? Does your pediatrician list out side effects to shots? Does your state have an annual forum for sharing vaccine information like Idaho? Let’s make this happen nationwide…