Letters from Maine

The limits of education


For more than a decade, studies on the dubious value of education in the face of vaccine refusal and hesitancy have been accumulating. But, too often, the research has been ignored by folks who believe that they can teach the “misinformed” into dropping their resistance. Among some circles education ranks right up there with apple pie and motherhood as one of the pillars of Americana. Those wedded to the education mantra may acknowledge that teaching and preaching hasn’t worked well in the past. But, they may claim it’s because we haven’t done enough of it or hit the right buttons. The notion that if we can just share the facts with the uninformed everything will be fine is a myth that obviously is going to die slowly.

Dr. William G. Wilkoff practiced primary care pediatrics in Brunswick, Maine, for nearly 40 years.

Dr. William G. Wilkoff

In a recent op-ed piece in the New York Times two physicians at Harvard Medical School reported on their study of about three-quarters of a million children who were eligible to receive HPV vaccines (2021 Dec 21. “Facts alone aren’t going to win over the unvaccinated. This might,” Anupam B. Jena and Christopher M. Worsham). The researchers found that children whose mothers had been diagnosed with cervical cancer were no more likely to be immunized than those children whose mothers had not had the disease. Who could be better informed about risks and hazards of contracting HPV than women with cervical cancer? If the facts won’t motivate, where does that leave us?

Those of you born before 1960 may remember or at least have heard about a television show called “Truth or Consequences.” It was a silly farce of a game show which has no bearing on our nation’s crisis of widespread vaccine refusal. However, buried in its title is the answer. If the truth isn’t convincing the resistors, then the obvious choice is consequences.

I hope that you have discovered that same strategy when counseling parents of misbehaving children. Talk is cheap and often ineffective. Explaining the error of his ways to a child who probably already knows what he is doing wrong is a waste of everyone’s time and unpleasant for those within earshot. At some point, sooner better than later, it’s time to say there is going to be a consequence for this misbehavior – going home from the playground, spending a few minutes in time-out, removing a privilege, etc. If consequences are chosen well and instituted with a minimum of idle threats, they work.

And, we are beginning to see it work in the face of pandemic shot refusal. Here in Maine the governor mandated that all health care workers be vaccinated. There was plenty of gnashing of teeth and threats of mass job walk offs. And, there were a few hospital workers who quit, but in the end it worked.

The trick is choosing consequences that have some teeth and make sense. Clearly, some folks who have read about the consequences of not getting vaccinated and may have even lost family members to the disease don’t see those losses as significant consequences for whatever reason. The threat of losing a job is likely to get their attention.

Threats must be carried out even though they may be disruptive in the short term. The good thing about well-crafted mandates is that they can be a win-win for everyone. The vaccine resisters don’t need to admit they were wrong. “Those shots are B.S., but the governor made me do it.” The problem is finding leaders who understand that education has its limits and who have the courage to create and administer the consequences.

Dr. Wilkoff practiced primary care pediatrics in Brunswick, Maine, for nearly 40 years. He has authored several books on behavioral pediatrics, including “How to Say No to Your Toddler.” Other than a Littman stethoscope he accepted as a first-year medical student in 1966, Dr. Wilkoff reports having nothing to disclose. Email him at pdnews@mdedge.com.

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