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Monitor Board of Contributors: Fear-mongering about vaccines can do real harm

I heard once that people are more likely to believe the fantastic or controversial than well-documented facts. This is especially true about vaccinations for children, and it’s something I have struggled with since I was a pediatric resident back in the 1980s. Doctors spend countless hours explaining the hows and whys and fighting the myths about vaccination that continue to result in many children and adults being at risk to catch life-threatening diseases.

We are a lucky generation because we didn’t grow up with the threat of polio and seeing our loved ones live out the rest of their lives crippled or in an iron lung because they couldn’t breathe after polio damaged their nerves. My own mother remembers being sent to camp in the summer (she grew up in New York City) for the sole purpose of protecting her from the polio epidemics that plagued the city every summer. When the polio vaccine came out, she signed me up for every opportunity to receive it at school and in the doctor’s office (I must have had 10).

Whole families were quarantined when diphtheria spread through a town, killing most people who came down with it. Tetanus was a real concern for people who worked the soil and was and still is for the most part an untreatable and fatal condition. Mumps can cause sterility in men. Smallpox killed and disfigured those who caught it and is now eradicated thanks to vaccination.

Why would anyone want to expose their precious child to these deadly illnesses when there is a simple solution?

The answer is fear mongering. In 1998 an article appeared in The Lancet about a study done by Andrew Wakefield stating that he had proven that the MMR –the immunization vaccine against measles, mumps, and rubella – caused autism. The study was flawed from the start but was published and started the cycle of fear of immunization. What wasn’t mentioned in the press was that Wakefield paid labs in California to give the results he wanted and that he studied only a handful of patients with a diagnosis of autism and didn’t compare them with any normal children. The article was retracted in 2004, and in 2010 Wakefield was convicted of professional misconduct and lost his medical license forever.

Also, a huge multicenter study looking at the charts of approximately 5,000 children at children’s medical centers in the United States failed to be able to duplicate these results.

Still people bring up the Wakefield study on a regular basis in our office as a reason they don’t want to vaccinate their children! And still books are written and things appear on the internet blaming autism on the MMR vaccine.

While some have acknowledged that Wakefield’s study was bogus, a new controversy has popped up about the number of vaccines recommended for children today causing health issues. Once again studies have shown that the number of vaccines is not harmful and that delaying vaccines just opens the opportunity for children to catch the diseases they protect against. One of the recent issues with this: increasing outbreaks of pertussis as parents under-vaccinate and delay vaccinations in their children, thereby putting our entire population at risk. This is especially concerning as pertussis is often fatal to infants; there is no treatment other than putting babies on a ventilator so they can breathe despite the continual coughing. Babies cough so much with pertussis that they turn blue and can suffer respiratory arrest and death. (As an aside, there is no mercury used as a preservative in infant vaccines. And the harmful type of mercury was never in vaccines to begin with; what was used was a safe and effective preservative.)

Now for my pet peeve: so-called experts who scare patients about vaccines and, worse, tell people that vaccines aren’t effective and that the body can heal itself and create its own immunity. Yes, you can become immune to chicken pox, measles, rubella, mumps and Hib (when you have reached age 5 or 6, not younger). However, there is no natural immunity to polio, tetanus or pertussis. To get natural immunity to some of the others, you must first catch the disease, hope you don’t die from it, and then have immunity if you’re lucky enough to survive. Certain people even take out ads at great expense to strike fear into the hearts of the public. Some pharmacies even carry books that spread the fear of vaccination.

Lastly I ask the question: If vaccines were dangerous, why would I, a pediatrician, have fully vaccinated my own children? I would never ask anyone to do something to their own child that I wouldn’t think safe for mine!

(Patricia Edwards of Bow is a pediatrician and president of Concord Pediatrics in Concord.)

Legacy Comments4

Thanks for the timely response to the unfortunate ad that appeared in the Monitor. The rest of this post is directed to the poster below, whose latest screed entitled "liberals killed millions..." should be Exhibit 1 for having commenters post under their own names. This is not the first time the topic of DDT has come up, and the internet is awash with claims on a par with the poster's nonsense. All such claims are misleading or false, and stem from some of the same sources that are major contributors to the deniosphere on climate change. But I won't hold my breath waiting for a retraction. Below is an excerpt from FAIR's article on the topic, including information on the origin and motives of those making such claims, as well as links to other sources containing information on the issue. First: "there is no global DDT ban. DDT is indeed banned in the U.S., but malaria isn’t exactly a pressing issue here. If it ever were, the ban contains an exception for matters of public health. Meanwhile, it’s perfectly legal—and indeed, used—in many other countries: 10 out of the 17 African nations that currently conduct indoor spraying use DDT (New York Times, 9/16/06). "DDT use has decreased enormously, but not because of a ban. The real reason is simple, although not one conservatives are particularly fond of: evolution. Mosquito populations rapidly develop resistance to DDT, creating enzymes to detoxify it, modifying their nervous systems to avoid its effects, and avoiding areas where DDT is sprayed — and recent research finds that that resistance continues to spread even after DDT spraying has stopped, lowering the effectiveness not only of DDT but also other pesticides (Current Biology, 8/9/05). 'No responsible person contends that insect-borne disease should be ignored,' Carson wrote in Silent Spring. 'The question that has now urgently presented itself is whether it is either wise or responsible to attack the problem by methods that are rapidly making it worse. . . . Resistance to insecticides by mosquitoes . . . has surged upwards at an astounding rate.' "But further spraying led only to further resistance, and the problem became much harder to control. DDT use was scaled back and other pesticides were introduced—more cautiously this time—but the epidemic was never again brought under control, with the deadly legacy that continues to this day. Instead of apologizing, the chemical companies went on the attack. They funded front groups and think tanks to claim the epidemic started because countries “stopped” using their products. In their version of the story, environmentalists forced Africans to stop using DDT, causing the increase in malaria. “It’s like a hit-and-run driver who, instead of admitting responsibility for the accident, frames the person who tried to prevent the accident,” complains Tim Lambert, whose weblog, Deltoid, tracks the DDT myth and other scientific misinformation in the media. Perhaps the most vocal group spreading this story is Africa Fighting Malaria (AFM). Founded in 2000 by Roger Bate, an economist at various right-wing think tanks, AFM has run a major PR campaign to push the pro-DDT story, publishing scores of op-eds and appearing in dozens of articles each year. Bate and his partner Richard Tren even published a book laying out their alternate history of DDT: When Politics Kills: Malaria and the DDT Story. A funding pitch uncovered by blogger Eli Rabbett shows Bate’s thinking when he first started the project. “The environmental movement has been successful in most of its campaigns as it has been ‘politically correct,’” he explained (Tobacco Archives, 9/98). What the anti-environmental movement needs is something with “the correct blend of political correctness ( . . . oppressed blacks) and arguments (eco-imperialism [is] undermining their future).” That something, Bate proposed, was DDT.

I believe you went over your 250 word max....

In 1998 an article appeared in The Lancet about a study done by Andrew Wakefield stating that he had proven that the MMR –the immunization vaccine against measles, mumps, and rubella – caused autism. No. This statement is incorrect. The 'study', as published in the Lancet, NEVER stated that the (ex) Dr Wakefield had proven a link. Specifically, in the 4th last paragraph of the now retracted Lancet article it states: "We did not prove an association between measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine and the syndrome described."(1) Hence Wakefield never managed to publish an article proving a link, not even close. But he was a well presented, concerned looking surgeon who managed to get in front of the cameras and infer that he had proven a link. Scaring people out of vaccinating, or at least changing to single vaccines for which he held a patent(2), was always his goal. Why people believe in this fraud and why parents of children suffering from the diseases Wakefield has helped to bring back have not tracked him down and brought him to justice is the real mystery here. References: (1) (2)

liberals killed millions with their DDT scare....

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