The two first-time parents sat across from me. I had just examined their 5-day old baby who was there for her first visit to the office after everyone went home from the hospital. Breathing, feeding, peeing, pooping. Yep, all the plumbing was working. The baby looked great. Mom and dad were smiling, and I was wrapping up, giving them a road map for the visits to come.
“She still hasn’t gotten back to her birth weight yet — which is completely normal — so I’d like to see her again in a week to make sure she does. After that we’ll see her at one month for a visit and then at two months when we’ll start her vaccines.”
The dad’s brow furrowed. “Vaccines? What vaccines are you talking about?”
“Well, the vaccines that all babies get to protect them against bad infections like diphtheria which causes a severe infection in the throat and makes it hard to breathe, and whooping cough which can cause breathing to get so bad that babies need to be put in the hospital and sometimes go into the ICU, as well as other things like haemophilus which can cause meningitis.”
“Okay, so you’re not talking about that COVID vaccine, are you?” he asked me.
“No, right now the baby is too young to get the COVID vaccine. Are the two of you vaccinated against COVID?” I asked. The dad looked at me quizzically.
“No!” He said emphatically. “Do you even know what’s in that vaccine?”
“Well, yeah, I do,” I answered
“Well, I don’t know about it.”
I took a deep breath. “I know,” I said, “I’ve heard a lot of stories about this vaccine too, and I have to admit it’s all pretty scary. What have you heard?”
I have some version of this conversation with some frequency, these days especially about COVID vaccine, but about vaccines in general also. Frankly, I struggle to remember not to take it personally. The vast majority of people who ask questions about vaccines are not what we sometimes derisively call “antivaxxers.” These are people who live in a very different media ecosystem than I do where all kinds of very frightening and completely bogus claims are made and reinforced.
“Well, I just don’t know,” the dad answered. “It just came out so fast, you know? I just don’t know what’s in it.”
“You know,” I said, “I can see how much you love this baby and want her to stay healthy. I want that too. The thing is, these vaccines that are out there now? There have been people working on creating these vaccines for over a decade now. This COVID coronavirus is related to a lot of other coronaviruses. Most cause plain old coughs and colds, but they can also cause more severe diseases. Do you remember hearing about an outbreak of something called SARS in Asia a number of years ago?”
“Yeah, I think so.”
“Well, they found out that SARS is a type of coronavirus that causes very severe disease in people. That’s when researchers first started working on vaccines against this group of viruses using promising techniques that were brand new at the time. The reason that a vaccine didn’t come out then for SARS was that the outbreak kind of burned itself out, and there was no need for a big vaccine rollout. But a few years later there was a different outbreak, this time in the Middle East called MERS, and that was caused by another coronavirus very similar to the one that caused SARS. This led researchers to feel that someday something much worse was going to come along that was not going to burn out, and we were going to need a really good vaccine for it. That’s why this vaccine seemed to come along so quick. It’s actually been in development for more than 10 years, and we’re really lucky that people were working on it so that it could be available so fast.”
Dad still did look a little skeptical. “Did you get the vaccine?”
“Oh, yeah!” I said. “I got it the very first chance I could, back in December.”
“Really!?” he scoffed. “Weren’t you scared?”
“Yeah, I was scared. I was scared of COVID! I saw people getting sick, people I know. I even know a couple of people who died of it.”
“Yeah, and even though little kids are not likely to get as sick as adults, about one out of 10,000 kids who get this coronavirus gets VERY sick. They can even end up with this thing called Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome that can affect your blood clotting, your brain, your breathing, your kidneys, all kinds of body systems, and kids have died of it.”
His eyes got wide. “Really?”
“Yeah, really. That’s why it’s really important for both of you to make sure that you’re vaccinated against stuff so you don’t bring it home to the baby. Do you know when you got your last tetanus shot?”
“Oh, man,” he sighed. “I don’t even have a doctor of my own.”
“Well,” I said, “we can help you find somebody. The reason I ask about the tetanus shot is that it also provides protection against whooping cough, and that’s something that can make babies very sick. So it really is important for you both to be up to date with your tetanus shot so you don’t bring whooping cough home to the baby.”
“I never thought about that,” the dad said quietly.
“Yeah, and COVID. It would be a really good idea for both of you to get vaccinated against COVID because you don’t want to bring that home and take that chance of your baby getting really sick.”
“Yeah,” he nodded, taking it all in. “I guess you’re right… You give COVID shots here?”
“We don’t have them in the office yet, but you can go to pretty much any drugstore and get it absolutely free. No strings attached. There are some Walgreens and CVS stores near here, and I think you can just walk in and get your shot.”
Dad took out his phone and started Googling. “Well, I’ll find a place and get that done today.”
“I’m really glad to hear that. I can see how much you love this baby and that you want to do everything to protect her.”
He nodded as he worked on his phone to find a place to get vaccinated. “You got that right!”
The mom had been rather quiet during all this, but she had been nodding silently to me as I was talking to the baby’s father. I asked them both, “What other questions do you have for me today?”
“I think we’re good,” dad said, looking at mom.
“Yes,” mom said, looking back at him, then at me, “Thank you.”
I admit that I sometimes, well, usually, find it very challenging to talk to people who seem to be questioning the validity of science, and even more so, questioning my own motives. It is very hard not to take it personally. Still, I’ve found that, over years of trial and error, the most important thing I can do is realize that this is not about me. People love their kids, they want them to be healthy, and if I can show that I recognize and affirm that and that I am here to help them achieve that goal, we can find common ground that works for everybody.