Nurses play a key role in advocating for, communicating with and educating patients and caregivers about the benefits of vaccination and vaccine safety. Nurses can do this by first making sure their own immunizations are up to date and then focusing on public health awareness and dispelling myths. Vaccines remain one of the safest, most cost-effective ways to protect individuals throughout the lifespan.

What Are Vaccines?

Vaccines help protect us against serious diseases, such as measles, shingles, rubella, chicken pox, the flu and even certain cancers. They are made from very small amounts of weakened or dead germs that help your immune system get a head start on fighting off illnesses. Your immune system is very smart — it will remember how to fight a specific illness if it has seen the illness before. Vaccines are like giving your immune system all the answers to the test in advance, which allows it to “study up” on how to protect you.

Global vaccination programs have dramatically reduced the number of deaths caused by infectious diseases, and even eradicated smallpox, a deadly disease that took millions of lives every year. Today, we rely on vaccines to fight off illnesses, and to protect our communities. “Herd immunity,” according to The Journal of Perinatal and Neonatal Nursing, is when enough people are vaccinated against an illness — they protect those who are unable to be vaccinated (newborn infants, the elderly and the immunocompromised) against that illness due to the decreased rate of exposure.

Why Are People Choosing Not to Vaccinate?

The wealth of health information online is a double-edged sword. While it can empower patients to participate in their own healthcare, it can also cause misconceptions and misunderstandings about health information, including vaccinations. Parent surveys have showed a wide variety of concerns regarding vaccines, many of which are based on false information from the internet.

Well-organized and well-funded anti-vaccine lobbies have injected fear into many parents, spreading false information about the adverse effects of vaccines. Many of these groups claim that vaccines cause autism, and that government agencies and pharmaceutical companies are hiding this information from the public. Extensive data shows that there is no link between vaccines and autism. Nevertheless, as of 2017, nearly 2% of parents refuse vaccinations for their child, and an additional 11% to 19% are hesitant or choose to delay vaccines.

An estimated 91% of cervical cancers and 70% of head and neck cancers have been linked to HPV. HPV is usually spread by intimate skin-to-skin contact. Many parents don’t want to think about their children needing that protection, especially when the recommended age for vaccination is 11-12 for both boys and girls. HPV vaccination needs to be seen as the social norm to protect against certain cancers later in life.

What Happens Without Vaccinations?

Some people may think that they no longer need vaccines for certain diseases like polio and diphtheria, as they are practically extinct in the U.S. However, the recent return of vaccine-preventable diseases is a cause for serious concern. As of November 2019, the United States experienced 1,261 measles cases (up 573% from last year), and most of the people who contracted the disease had not been vaccinated. In 2018, over 80,000 people died from the flu, and a significant percentage of them were young children who had not been vaccinated.

This increase in cases of vaccine-preventable diseases traces back to the sharp decline in vaccine coverage. Parents who receive false information about vaccines may choose not to vaccinate their child. This doesn’t mean they are malicious; they are trying to make the best decisions for their child but are working with faulty information. It falls to the nurse to provide clear and accurate information to parents and guide them toward reputable online sources.

Why Is Patient Education Important?

Nursing has consistently ranked as the most trusted profession, so the role of the nurse in educating patients about vaccines is vital. By sharing both reputable information and personal stories, nurses can help build or restore confidence in vaccines. Vaccines are safe, and serious side effects are rare. Parents need to understand the risk-benefit ratio so that they can make good decisions.

Children aren’t the only ones who need vaccines — adults need them too. Some patients may think that they are finished with vaccines once they are through puberty, but yearly vaccines (e.g., influenza) and booster vaccines (e.g., tetanus, diphtheria, pertussis) help maintain health. Additionally, some vaccines are targeted specifically for older adults — the shingles (zoster) and pneumococcal vaccine, for example. Nurses can help raise vaccine awareness and plan future vaccination visits.

Nurses can find reliable and peer-reviewed materials for patients online. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has many resources to aid nurses in educating patients. An online RN to BSN program trains nurses on communication skills, evidence-based practice and leadership skills, all of which are important when educating patients.

Learn more about Eastern Michigan University’s online RN to BSN program.


International Council of Nurses: The Role of Nurses in Immunisation Vaccines Work

World Health Organization: Smallpox

The Journal of Perinatal & Neonatal Nursing: Discussing Vaccination With Concerned Parents: An Evidence-Based Resource for Healthcare Providers

Time: Anti-Vaxx Websites, We’re Onto You

Chicago Tribune: Percentage of Young U.S. Kids Who Don’t Get Vaccinated Has Quadrupled Since 2001

The Journal for Nurse Practitioners: Promoting Childhood Immunizations

CDC: How Many Cancers Are Linked With HPV Each Year?

American Academy of Pediatrics: Tips and Time-Savers for Talking With Parents About HPV Vaccine

American Nurses Association: Patient Education

Pediatric Research: America and Europe’s New Normal: The Return of Vaccine-Preventable Diseases

CDC: Measles Cases and Outbreaks

The Washington Post: Flu Can Be a Killer, But Some Refuse to Take a Shot

American Nurse Today: The Critical Role of Nurses in Promoting Immunization for Adults

CDC: Patient Education