2.1M views and counting: Physician goes viral in his defense of vaccines

As public health officials call on doctors to counter misinformation about vaccines, one California physician is speaking out loud and clear.

A YouTube video in which pediatric intensive care physician David Epstein, M.D., debated with people who were opposed to vaccines had almost 1.5 million views in just one week.

Given the measles outbreaks in the Northwest, the video’s popularity has continued to grow, and it has now been seen by over 2.1 million viewers.

David Epstein
David Epstein, M.D. (Courtesy of MVP
Pediatric and Urgent Care)

Epstein, who was approached to participate in the Middle Ground video, a series by the YouTube channel Jubilee that brings together people from two opposing sides to discuss hot button issues, said it was the first time he has participated in such a project. In this case, the debate included supporters of vaccines and those who think they are dangerous.

“It’s a little bit unfathomable to me,” he said, of the number of views the video got in such a short bit of time. “But with the outbreaks of diseases, it’s really struck a chord.”

And Epstein, who co-founded MVP Pediatric & Urgent Care in Los Angeles, said in an interview with FierceHealthcare that doctors are among the best people to speak out about the reasons why people should get vaccinated. The video included three people who were pro-vaccine and three who were anti-vaccine.

A contagious disease makes a comeback

Top health officials agree that doctors can counter the misinformation surrounding vaccine safety.

"We shouldn't be criticizing people who get this information that's false, because they may not know that it's false," Anthony Fauci, M.D., director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, testified on Wednesday during a House Committee on Energy and Commerce hearing. "We need to try to continue to educate them."

The drop in the use of the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine appears to be allowing measles to regain ground.

"I consider it really an irony that you have one of the most contagious viruses known to man, juxtaposed against one of the most effective vaccines that we have, and yet we don't do and have not done what could be done—namely, completely eliminate and eradicate this virus,” Fauci said.

Experts at the hearing stressed the importance of public health officials and doctors countering false information about the safety of vaccines. There have been 159 confirmed cases of measles in 10 states since Jan. 1, Nancy Messonnier, M.D., director of the CDC's National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, told the committee.

Next Tuesday the U.S. Senate's Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions has scheduled a hearing on vaccine-preventable diseases, ongoing outbreaks that pose a risk to public health and the importance of immunizations.

A doctor’s voice

As a doctor, Epstein made the case for the safety and efficacy of vaccines in the video debate. Addressing the concern of those who were against vaccinations, Epstein said, “I’ve seen too many things on the other side. I’ve seen kids come into the ICU and die from getting the flu. The risks are far outweighed by the benefits of getting the protection.”

Epstein is a doctor at Children’s Hospital in Los Angeles and has been a member of the division of anesthesiology critical care medicine since 2006. The video shows up among the results under a search for "vaccines" on YouTube

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Also helping fuel the views of the video debate is the fact that Zubin Damania, M.D.,  also known as ZDoggMD, posted the video on his website. Damien, who says “we know there is no debate” on the issue, still urged people to watch the video between pro-vax and anti-vax people.

Mikhail “Mike” Varshavski, D.O., of the popular YouTube channel Dr. Mike, also praised Epstein for using his personal and professional experience to reach out to those who might be anti-vaccination.

“Being an intensivist I see the worst of the worst ... I’m seeing the other side of kids who don’t get vaccinated,” Epstein said.

Health officials told Congress that the rising threat of misinformation has made some parents opt not to vaccinate their children. Recently, the anti-vaccination movement has gained traction and there has been a rise in nonmedical exemptions from vaccine.

However, with a disturbing number of measles outbreaks cropping up across the United States, some people are rethinking their anti-vaccine stance. In Washington state, the governor declared a state of emergency as a result of the measles outbreak there and in neighboring Oregon.

RELATED: Physicians fear Trump will spark antivaccine resurgence

While developing countries have struggled with outbreaks of diseases, the U.S. hasn’t seen these kinds of instances in a long time, Epstein said. In fact, in 2000, the U.S. declared that measles had been eliminated.

“We’re seeing this resurgence. It’s caught a lot of people off guard. One of the things I think I brought to the debate is that physicians who work in intensive care and pediatric intensive care see these vaccine-preventable diseases,” Epstein said.

Vaccines have helped wipe out many diseases that were once common, he said. When the polio vaccine became available people lined up to get it because they had seen the devastating effects of the disease, he said. But last year, 200 children died from the flu and approximately 80% had not been received a flu vaccine.

RELATED: Decline in childhood measles vaccine has health and economic consequences

The World Health Organization recently named “vaccine hesitancy” as one of the biggest global health threats of 2019.

Epstein says doctors can educate parents and patients. His advice to other doctors?

“Be empathetic but reassure them that from your experience the vaccines are safe … I think we need to keep trying and advocate for vaccinations. It’s hard to talk to families who are really anti-vaccine. But some are on the fence. You can discuss things with them and educate them.”