This formerly 'vaccine-hesitant' mom has a message for Canadian doctors

A mother whose children all contracted whooping cough three years ago says it's time for health-care providers to change the way they talk to so-called anti-vaxxer parents.

Tara Hills, whose 7 kids had whooping cough in 2015, addresses Canadian Immunization Conference

Tara Hills, a mother of nine, used to be skeptical of vaccines, but now encourages parents to vaccinate their children. (Submitted by Tara Hills)
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Transcript

A mother whose children all contracted whooping cough three years ago says it's time for health-care providers to change the way they talk to so-called anti-vaxxer parents.

Tara Hills — a former vaccination skeptic who now preaches the benefits of immunization to other parents — spoke Tuesday at the Canadian Immunization Conference in Ottawa.

"I wanted to encourage health-care providers that they could connect positively with vaccine-hesitant parents like I was if they would make their approach more conversational and more relatable," the mother of nine told As It Happens host Carol Off. 

"Some [doctors] are more authoritarian. 'Do what the doctor says and don't question this.' Others, like my doctor, didn't really know how to handle this and kind of just don't even have a conversation about it."

Health-care professionals are looking to people like Hills to help them reach parents who are leery of vaccinating their children.

A rise of anti-vaccine sentiment in recent decades has made it difficult for Canada to meet the 95 per cent target needed for herd immunity — the point at which enough people in a population have immunity through vaccination or previous exposure to effectively protect those without immunity.

And the phenomenon is a global one. The World Health Organization reported a record number of measles cases in Europe this year, with more than 41,000 people infected in the first six months of 2018.

The government of Canada says vaccines are "critical for the prevention and control of infectious diseases," including several for which there is no cure. 

"Perceived vaccine safety risks receive as much media attention as real safety risks and can be difficult to dispel despite credible scientific evidence," reads Canada's fact sheet about vaccine safety.

"Loss of confidence in the safety of vaccines threatens the continued success of immunization programs."

Misinformation overload 

Hills said she first became wary of vaccinations because of misinformation from friends and the internet.

The debate over vaccinations is so heated, she said it can be hard to separate fact from fiction. 

"I wasn't hardcore anti-vax, but I had enough concerns that I was hesitating," she said.

"And when you're hearing so much conflicting noise in our age of information, the human response is often just to freeze — and I did that for several years."

Tara Hills, who espouses the benefits of vaccination to hesitant parents, is pictured here with her family. (Submitted by Tara Hills )

Then one day, a friend connected her to a writer for the blog The Scientific Parent.

She was hesitant to speak to her at first, she said. Every other pro-vaccination advocate she'd spoken to was either openly hostile or insulted her intelligence. 

But his woman, she said, treated her with "dignity and respect."

"The first thing she said to me was, 'Tara, I want you to know you're a really good mom and it's totally OK to ask questions about vaccines,'" she said.

"Her approach immediately set me at ease. It made me more comfortable exploring my concerns."

Breaking through the noise

That's when she decided to break through the noise, roll up her sleeves and do some research.

"It clearly didn't take long for me to see where the weight the evidence actually was, and I immediately called my doctor's office and we arranged for all seven kids to be caught up."

But by then, it was too late.

In 2015, all seven of her children contracted whooping cough, and all of her nieces and nephews — including a newborn baby — had to be treated with antibiotics. 

"I didn't need that illustration, but there it was. It couldn't have been illustrated more profoundly," Hills said.

Hunkered down in her home for five days to avoid spreading the infection, Hills blogged about the experience for The Scientific Parent and answered concerned parents' questions about vaccines. 

She also shared her story with the media, despite knowing she would face backlash and vitriol.

"I wanted to connect with other moms like me who hesitated so they could avoid this and obviously a far worse situation than I was in," she said.

She has since had two more children — both of them vaccinated. 

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Produced by Jeanne Armstrong.

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