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The Politics of Immunization: Dr. Jennifer Reich Talks Vaccines and COVID In ISB-Town Hall Seattle Livestream

Long before COVID-19 and measles outbreaks at Disneyland, Dr. Jennifer Reich was thinking about vaccines.

In a livestream presentation on Thursday, Reich recalled a post 9/11 moment during George W. Bush’s presidency when he proposed a vaccine campaign targeting smallpox. The Bush Administration plan was for a hypothetical scenario where terrorists weaponized the remaining stores of a disease that was eradicated in the 1960s.

During that same time period, Reich had small children of her own, and heard from other moms about the possibility of supporting kids’ health without using vaccines.

“The juxtaposition of these two places — of saying infectious disease could be weaponized, but also that parents don’t need routine vaccines against measurable threat — was really fascinating to me,” said Reich, a sociologist and professor at University of Colorado Denver and a leading expert in vaccine rejection.

Reich was the featured guest of a virtual event hosted by ISB and Town Hall Seattle, part of the 2020 Speaker Series marking ISB’s 20th anniversary.

You can watch the livestream event in full by clicking play on the video above, or by going here.

Reich’s keynote presentation touched on a number of topics, including:

  • How and when people exercise personal freedoms and autonomy, and when we participate in community solutions;
  • How individualist parenting (parents, mostly mothers, are expected to make perfect consumer choices, research all options, make informed decisions, and take responsibility for the outcome of their kids) and our vocabulary for health promotion (we are individually responsible for our own health, and through hard work, we can avoid illness) have paved the way for viewing vaccines as a personal consumption product rather than a public health solution;
  • The current status, issues, and public opinion surrounding COVID-19 vaccine development.

Following her talk, Reich joined ISB President Dr. Jim Heath for a timely conversation about COVID vaccines and observations and challenges from Reich’s in-depth sociological research, and they addressed questions from the livestream audience in attendance.

Calling the Shots

Reich is author of “Calling the Shots: Why Parents Reject Vaccines,” and her expertise is hard earned. “As a sociologist, I follow things around for long periods of time to understand them from as many perspectives as possible,” she said.

For her book, Reich conducted in-depth interviews with parents, health care providers, attorneys who represent families in vaccine injury claims, researchers, and policymakers. She attended conferences and workshops, and went to childrens’ hospitals to learn how doctors talk to each other about vaccine removal and to learn how new physicians are trained. And she consumed massive amounts of policy and media.

“I try to capture how we’ve arrived at a moment where we take something that exists as a technology, and come to such widely varied conclusions about what it means to the world,” she said.

It’s easy to label parents who reject vaccines as selfish or delusional or anti-science, but Reich said she came to realize parents are responding in logical ways based on the cultures we’ve set before them.

She also noted that vaccine concerns are not fringe, citing recent data that shows a quarter of U.S. parents are intentionally delaying or skipping vaccines, or spacing them out in a way that differs from public health recommendations. “Parents are overwhelmingly saying they trust their own judgement more than they trust experts, pharmaceutical companies, government agencies, advisory committees, public health, and even their own pediatricians at times,” Reich said.

Enter the Pandemic

Reich’s deep research for “Calling the Shots” is especially relevant for providing context around COVID-19 and adoption once vaccines are developed and proven effective.

Many think of it as a magic bullet that will allow us to return to social life where we are protected  and able to safely go into grocery stores, movie theaters, sporting events and concerts, and church services. We assume people will immediately want it.

“Yet what we know of vaccines that have a long safety record is that they’ve become less popular over time, and that vaccine refusal has been increasing over the past several years,” she said.

Reich is now taking the cues she’s learned from parents who refuse vaccines, and using them to predict how a COVID vaccine might play out.

ISB Celebrates 20-Year Anniversary

This virtual event is a partnership between ISB and Town Hall Seattle, and came about thanks to our sponsors: BNBuilders; Thompson Wellness Wealth Management, A member of D.A. Davidson & Co.; Indi Molecular; IsoPlexis; Just Evotec Biologics; NanoString Technologies; and PACT Pharma.

This was the second of a four-part 2020 speaker series highlighting some of the most important topics in science and health care. Future events will focus on brain health (October 20, 2020 at 6 p.m. PT with keynote Dr. David Eagleman) and AI in health care (November 5, 2020 at 6 p.m. PT with keynote Ellen Ullman). For much more information, please visit our speaker series events page.

The speaker series is part of ISB’s 20th anniversary celebration. ISB was founded in 2000 by genomics pioneer Dr. Lee Hood. We are a non-profit 501(c)3 biomedical research organization based in Seattle’s South Lake Union neighborhood.

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