How Michigan health professionals are working to provide the best data on vaccines

Vaccination can be a tricky subject. For many parents, the choice to abstain from immunizing their child is a religious choice. For others, the decision is based on information gathered from any number of sources, many nonscientific, found online. For medical health professionals, this fight against inaccurate information is real: one that may be a life or death struggle for communities with a high rate of unvaccinated children who are lacking the benefit of herd immunity.

The state of Michigan, which in 2017 was ranked 29th in the nation for vaccinations for the combined rates of eight standard vaccines, has its own issues when it comes to large numbers of unvaccinated schoolchildren. Many health professionals have pointed to the dissemination of inaccurate information via the internet — as well as Michigan’s statewide non-medical exemption policy that allows parents to opt out of immunizations for philosophical reasons — as the cause of recent outbreaks of previously eradicated diseases like the Measles.

But for educators, doctors, nurses, and other health professionals, there is a silver lining: many groups in the state of Michigan have doubled down on their efforts to collate, disseminate, and constantly update credible, scientific information on immunization. Whether families find this information online or at the doctor’s office, this credible data is undertaking the Herculean effort of truth-telling for children’s health.

Education at the state level

“When you Google pretty much anything … some people, based on their previous searches, don’t always get the most scientific-based [information],” says Heidi Loynes, BSN, RN, Immunization Nurse Educator at the MDHHS’ Division of Immunization. "That is one of the hardest things to talk about,” she adds, referring to the constant battle against click bait and algorithms that make non-credible information-sharing a profitable business.

To counteract disreputable online sources, Loynes works at the state level to ensure that all doctor’s offices have easy-to-understand, up-to-date, and credible information to provide to patients and their parents face-to-face. “The providers are a trusted source,” she says. “Physicians don’t get as much push back … We just keep reinforcing that this is the credible source, this is the correct information.” 

To create documents like brochures and posters for physicians’ offices, Loynes is consistently working to update her documents based on the newest information from the CDC. “We use the CDC all the time,” says Loynes. “They have some great resources and parent resources.”

Another part of Loynes’ daily work is to monitor the Michigan Care Improvement Registry (MCIR), a website that not only offers links to relevant vaccination information, but also serves as a comprehensive lifetime registry for all residents in the state of Michigan. On MCIR, schools and healthcare providers can directly report vaccination information to the state, allowing for real-time information on potential outbreaks. “MCIR is a terrific tool for providers to help ensure that their patients have accurate immunization records and are protected from vaccine preventable diseases,” says Loynes. 

Dr. Laura Champion, Medical Director at Calvin University. Information at work on college campuses

MCIR is a resource utilized by school officials throughout the state to report and download vaccination information, from grade school to the university level. Laura Champion, MD, Medical Director of Calvin University’s Health Services, relies on this real-time information to maintain a high vaccination rate for Calvin’s Grand Rapids campus. “Our relationship is very good with the Michigan Registrar,” says Champion. “The electronic records system we use is specific to college health.”

Utilizing CDC recommendations as campus policy in conjunction with state regulation and The American College Health Association, Registered Nurse Barb Mustert oversees Calvin’s Travel and Immunization Clinic. Though Calvin does allow non vaccinated students to reside in the dorms, with access to vaccination records, Mustert, Champion, and the health department team have the information at their fingertips to zero in on the source of an outbreak before it becomes a campus epidemic.

Nurse Barbra Mustert helps students understand the vaccinations required before international travel. This occurred a few years ago when a case of Mumps infiltrated the dorms. “It was just a big ordeal,” says Champion, who worked with campus officials to ultimately determine that students should be sent home, temporarily live in optional housing, and undergo proctored exams. "We did our best to accommodate [the students] and it’s still quite a disruption.”

While ensuring student and campus-wide health is a large priority by keeping track of youth and seasonal vaccinations like the flu, Mustert also oversee all immunizations for Calvin students traveling overseas. To do this, Mustert meets with each student one-on-one to ensure that they understand the risks and undergo the proper immunizations before traveling to any one of the 40 countries in Calvin’s international programs roster.

The buck stops with parents

While educational institutions can help increase safety through strict protocols and dissemination of information, it’s the parents, stresses Lyons, whose decisions matter most when it comes to early — and ongoing — childhood vaccination. “Having tools for the providers and information for parents/guardians/patients is an important step towards ensuring people are protected from Vaccine Preventable Diseases (VPDs) in the State of Michigan,” she says.

One of these tools that Lyons often shares is a clear, parent-focused document developed by the Immunization Action Coalition (IAC) out of St. Paul, MN, called “Reliable Sources of Immunization Information: Where Parents Can go to Find Answers.” In this legible one-pager, the coalition offers a bevy of science-based sources to aid in their decision-making. 

In addition, “We have a wonderful, wonderful program in our state called iVaccinate,” says Lynn Sutfin, Public Information Officer at MDHHS. Developed by the Franny Strong Foundation, which was founded by a Michigan couple who lost their 12-week-old daughter to pertussis (whooping cough), iVaccinate “provides information and tools based on real medical science and research to help Michigan parents protect their kids.” 

By providing helpful resources, commonly asked questions, and news on studies, research, and local and national outbreak cases, iVaccinate aims to simplify the onslaught of information about vaccines that parents often receive. The information is also tailored specifically toward parents, and vetted through parent work groups to aid in thoughtful and intentional delivery. And this site is a powerful partnership of the state’s foremost health organizations.

“The campaign has the support of many of the major organized medicine and public health groups in Michigan, including the Michigan Health & Hospital Association, Michigan State Medical Society, Michigan Osteopathic Association, Michigan Association of Health Plans, Michigan Council of Nurse Practitioners, Michigan Council of Maternal and Child Health, Michigan Association of Local Public Health, and many more,” says Sutfin.

Peer-reviewed and backed by scientific evidence

Though it can be difficult to cut through the noise when it comes to personal, medical decisions for yourself or your family, Loynes and her colleagues stress that the information they disseminate is peer reviewed and backed by scientific evidence. 

“It is important to ensure that everyone has access to reliable, credible, scientific-based immunization information,” says Loynes. “We know that finding immunization information on the internet can be easy but this information may not always be from a reliable source. Within the Division of Immunization at the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) we strive to ensure that our healthcare providers and general public within the State have access to accurate immunization education.”

For more credible information sources on vaccination, visit the following sites:Photos by Adam Bird of Bird + Bird Studio.

This article is part of a three-part series on vaccination and the public health in West Michigan sponsored by the Kent County Health Department. Articles and their content are journalistically independent of and not reviewed by the KCHD. For reliable and evidence-based scientific information on communicable diseases and immunization in Michigan, visit the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.