I recall once being asked, as part of a physical exam, “Have you been immunized?” The question wasn’t specific with regard to which immunizations, so my response was that I wasn’t positive. I had done much international travel while growing up, and had received multiple vaccinations at various times, but I wasn’t sure all the recommended vaccinations were up to date at that time.
The physician persisted, asking, “Weren’t your parents educated?”—implying that the only way I might not have been immunized was if my parents were uneducated.
In the years since then, I have often thought how presumptuous that question was, especially given the number of highly educated people who are opposed to vaccinations. Clearly, people’s opinions about vaccines aren’t simply a matter of their being educated or not; people need information that is not only accurate, but also relevant.
The story is told of a student, who, when presented with a complicated algebraic formula and asked to “prove” it, responded, “No need to prove it, Sir. I believe you.” While some may dismiss this as being the response of a lazy student, I believe it sheds light on a very real issue. The student might have been more motivated to solve the problem if there had been a clear connection to her everyday life. There is a place for acquiring knowledge for the sake of knowledge. But perhaps, rather than spending so much time on facts that have little or no relevance to the real world, we should spend more time educating people about things that have real-world impact.
When I talk to high school and college students about public health, I like to highlight public health success stories from the past. One of them is the development of the smallpox vaccine, which led to the eradication of the disease. While vaccines are not necessarily without risk, neither are other medical interventions that we have come to accept.
Unfortunately, some people will succumb to diseases, despite being vaccinated, like the ICU nurse in our local hospital who recently lost her life to COVID, despite having been vaccinated. Her dying wish was to encourage others to get vaccinated. The vaccine wasn’t able to save her life, but she clearly understood its public health benefits. If only our educational efforts would be effective in getting the public to understand this.