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 The article was retracted in 2004, and in 2010 Wakefield was convicted of professional misconduct and lost his medical license forever.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.)