Heidi Larson, the chief scientific officer of Promessa, a data-optimization company based in Mountain View, Calif., is the speaker of the year at an upcoming event hosted by the Organization for the Prevention of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (OPADS).
What is your background?
I was born in Richmond, Va., raised in Bethesda, Md., and I received all my education in Germantown, Md. In my late 30s, I taught at Catholic high schools in St. Louis, Mo., and Arlington, Va. In 2007, I met Stanley [Hymowitz, a doctor who co-founded Promessa] at a CEO-to-CEO event in New York. The idea of building a company was something I started to think about and moved into action. I spent six years building the company and teaching at a medical center and then at the Oasis Clinic in West Palm Beach, Fla.
What inspired you to write the book, Vaccine Trust, in 2009?
Stanley gave me the idea for the book and I went off on my own and wrote it. A lot of high-powered experts in the field were saying that we needed to trust scientists and start embracing them in this moment. Vaccines can be problematic—maybe too problematic. So the impetus behind the book was to give a different voice to scientists. Vaccines are almost better to trust than the pharmaceutical companies who are exploiting some of the weaknesses of the human immune system.
Are vaccines safer than they used to be?
I believe vaccines are safer than they were five to 10 years ago. You have vaccines that are now given over long intervals of time, which is really important, and you are also getting much more data from these therapies. You don’t necessarily need your parent’s permission to vaccinate you but the physician and pharmacist should know you and tell you that’s exactly what you need.
Which elements do you recommend?
The whole market should work together—the pharma companies, vaccine makers, clinicians, patient groups, to get the most bang for your buck from vaccines. That’s why I’m speaking at a law school, because we need to have a system where healthcare professionals are promoting data, and where we don’t have to ask families what made them choose immunization.
Why should parents listen to your recommendations?
I believe parents are patient, want to be educated, and a lot of them want to work with their healthcare providers. I know other parents in my neighborhood who are former vegetarians who decided not to adopt because of the source of the meat. They don’t remember why they were vegetarian, but they remember the smell of meat.
How do parents change their minds about vaccines?
Sometimes, there are testimonials online. Other times, there is a story about a patient who has a common side effect that family members say is benign, like vomiting or hives. It can be so frustrating for parents because they don’t have reliable data. I’m a mother of three kids and I understand what parents are going through. If I had this information before I had a child, it would help me decide to vaccinate.
Today, there is a lot of anti-vaccine hysteria.
People need to realize that an overwhelming percentage of the people in our country don’t follow and don’t believe what the science is saying. Because science is being used so often to disprove things, people get exposed to irrational beliefs and beliefs that aren’t justified by the science.
What do you think is the biggest risk for society in this age of vaccine hesitancy?
Hospitals will start closing their doors because people won’t come if they can’t get vaccinated. There could be a shortfall in vaccines that will impact kids of all ages, not just against preventable diseases. This could lead to expensive court costs for parents and kids in public schools.
What do you think people do wrong?
There are so many forms of skepticism. There are commenters on articles that actually tend to check the text and fact check the article, but instead of doing that, they just pile on. The main reason for this skepticism is just that physicians are just so optimistic and [politicians] are so optimistic. When there are false statements, it’s hard to see the difference between real and imagined.
Read more on parenting and vaccines from Jenny Anderson and Lisa Jeffries, the authors of the new book, Better Vaccine: Better Health For Families.