This is the fourth in an occasional series about the everyday vaccine heroes of Texas. These aren’t the politicians or researchers or the authors of books. Rather, their personal experiences have made them deeply aware of the need to protect the public from vaccine-preventable diseases. Everyday vaccine heroes reach out beyond those personal situations to improve the health of the entire state.
Here’s something that Zack Lazar would love to have vaccine-hesitant people understand: The common over-the-counter pain reliever acetaminophen is far more likely to have serious side effects than vaccines, and yet most people are very comfortable using it.
“It’s responsible for more than 30,000 hospitalizations a year,” said Lazar, a registered nurse who is studying to become a psychiatric nurse practitioner. “It’s the most common cause of acute liver failure and causes more than 100 deaths a year from overdose. But it’s in everyone’s medicine cabinet.”
Lazar’s intent isn’t to throw shade on a popular and generally safe pain reliever. It’s to note that people’s fears aren’t always in alignment with where danger lies. No treatment is without side effects, he notes, but generally people find the extremely tiny risk of a side effect to be worth the benefit of the health and well-being they gain from a medication like an over-the-counter pain reliever. Considering that vaccines save lives every day, and that the risk is miniscule that they would cause any health problem more serious than a sore shoulder, Lazar finds it astonishing that so many people will fret over or even avoid immunization, while using acetaminophen without a thought.
Lazar volunteers for Immunize Texas, the grassroots organizing arm of The Immunization Partnership. He’s given many vaccinations in his career, in clinics, nursing homes, hospitals and during vaccination drives. He was aware that there were some people who opposed or feared vaccines, but it seemed like too small a movement to capture his interest.
Then he moved to Austin, where parents are more likely to exempt their children from vaccination laws, including some pockets where immunization rates are dangerously low. And he learned that many of them believed the debunked study by Austin resident Andrew Wakefield claiming falsely that the measles vaccine is linked to autism. It was later retracted by the British medical journal Lancet after it was discovered that some of the data were fraudulent and that Wakefield had a financial interest in the outcome.
“I thought, ‘Wait, you mean the guy we talked about in high school or college science classes?’ This was taught is a prime example of how a well-respected publication can get it wrong and not properly vet a paper. And we’re taught in medical classes not to draw inferences from a single study.” Even more astonishing, he said, was finding that Wakefield had a “camp behind him,” willing to support his fraudulent claims.
Lazar joined with Immunize Texas to walk over to the Capitol building on Legislative Days, when the public is invited to talk with legislators and their staffs about various pieces of legislation. He used the iPads in the hallways, provided for people to give their opinions without in-person meetings, to outline the importance of vaccination in preventing serious illness, and the need to make sure that almost everyone receives the recommended vaccines. He wrote in support of the Parents’ Right to Know bill, which would have made each public school’s vaccine-exemption rate public so that parents sending their children to a school would know how safe it was from vaccine-preventable diseases, and he wrote against a bill that would have made it easier for parents to get an exemption for their children. Neither bill passed.
Lazar could have written an email about these bills, but he felt legislators would take his message more seriously if they knew he’d bothered to come to the building in person. And he urged his fellow nursing-practitioner students to follow his lead.
Once the legislative session ended, he finds himself talking to people more informally about vaccination, “providing information, opening up a dialogue.”
“Regardless of whether I’m talking to parents or with someone in personal conversation, one of the most important things that people miss is looking at it vaccination more systemically,” he said. “Maybe you don’t really care about immunization or you don’t want to be told your child has to be vaccinated, but there are a lot of people who don’t have the option of choosing whether to take a risk. Kids with cancer, people with chronic inflammatory conditions or HIV who for medical reasons can’t be vaccinated, or children who are too young for certain shots, are all affected by these decisions by other people. If those people get sick, the people who had no choice are much more likely to get sick.”
He doesn’t think his words immediately change the minds of vaccine-hesitant people, “but hopefully they’ll land at a later date.”
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