I have decided to tackle another 500 pound gorilla with this week’s blog…. as the childhood vaccine debate has come back into the news this winter with some interesting developments. More specifically, in 2010 the US had the largest outbreak of pertussis (otherwise known as whooping cough) in the country since 1959. Thousands of cases of the disease were reported, and at least 10 children died from pertussis in California. To note, California has one of the highest vaccine “exemption rates” in the country, meaning that parents with children attending public schools can opt out of required vaccinations with a “religious exemption”.
Furthermore, in late January the British Medical Journal published an editorial calling London Gastroenterologist Andrew Wakefield’s research linking the Measles, Mumps, and Rubella (MMR) vaccine to autism “an elaborate fraud”. This article was based upon the release of findings from the longest medical misconduct inquiry ever held: a five-member tribunal of the British General Medical Council found more than 30 charges against Wakefield and his team as “proven” (to include 4 counts of dishonesty and failure to disclose commercial interests and 12 counts of abusing developmentally challenged children). Several anti-vaccine activist groups have reacted strongly with steadfast support for Dr. Wakefield and his research.
For the most part, opposition to childhood vaccines simmered on the back burner of media attention until 1998, when Dr. Wakefield co-authored a study of 12 children that causally linked MMR to autism. Although his research was immediately challenged, it was not until last year that Dr. Wakefield had his medical license stripped and research retracted. However, in the mean time, vaccine exemption rates increased dramatically (especially among those privately insured), ratings-hungry news outlets fell in love with anti-vaccine stories, and celebrity personalities took to the air waves with anti-vaccine activism.
Actress Jenny McCarthy blamed the MMR vaccine for her son’s autism and famously proclaimed on Oprah that “The University of Google is where I got my degree” (Apparently, if you are insanely attractive, no really one cares where you got your degree. They will listen to you anyway…ha!). Though seriously, I have no beef with Jenny. She’s persistent and passionate… and if I had a child with autism, I would want answers, too. However, since that television appearance, many (allegedly harmful) chemicals, such as the mercury based Thimersol, have all but been removed or reduced to trace amounts in today’s vaccine schedule (except for the inactivated flu shot)… while autism rates have continued to soar.
So while the vaccine debate moves onward, it seems that the pendulum of public perception might be swinging back towards a greater acceptance of “herd immunity”. Does this mean that every single child in the country will react positively to every vaccine? No, not at all. However, we need to be aware that many of us today have a skewed view of the risks vs. benefits of vaccines. Why? Because we’re not seeing these diseases naturally…we’re not witnessing deafness caused by mumps, blindness from measles, or paralysis brought on by polio. Furthermore, it is more common that we know a child with autism than a child who suffered from a disease that vaccines prevent.
Finally, here lies the trade-off. Any concerned parent is going to be skeptical of vaccines. And personally, I hope that activist groups and the media will continue to demand safety and efficacy from Pharmaceutical companies and the government agencies overseeing childhood vaccines- agencies packed with Big Pharma cronies! However, my opinion (to date) is that vaccines work for “the herd”…and therefore, we have chosen to fully vaccinate our daughter on schedule.
If you have any additional thoughts, please share your comments below.