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Vaccination avoiders put everyone at risk

For a highly readable and eye-opening article on the anti-vaccination movement, I recommend freelance writer Amy Wallace’s “An Epidemic of Fear: How Panicked Parents Skipping Shots Endangers Us All,” published last week in Wired magazine.

The article explains why other people’s decision to opt out of vaccinations for their children puts you and your family at risk — yes, even if your family has been fully vaccinated.

Here’s why you should care: Wallace describes how an Indiana teenager contracted measles in 2005 while visiting Bucharest, Romania, and then quickly spread the illness as soon as she got home — including to 34 of the 500 or so people present at a church gathering she attended the next day. Most of those who caught the illness (32) had not been vaccinated against measles. But two had.

“The frightening implications of this kind of anecdote were illustrated by a 2002 study published in The Journal of Infectious Diseases,” Wallace writes. “Looking at 3,292 cases of measles in the Netherlands, the study found that the risk of contracting the disease was lower if you were completely unvaccinated and living in a highly vaccinated community than if you were completely vaccinated and living in a relatively unvaccinated community. Why? Because vaccines don’t always take. What does that mean? You can’t minimize your individual risk unless your herd, your friends and neighbors, also buy in.”

More and more parents, Wallace writes, are acting out of fear and electing not to have their children vaccinated:

In certain parts of the U.S., vaccination rates have dropped so low that occurrences of some children’s diseases are approaching pre-vaccine levels for the first time every. And the number of people who choose not to vaccinate their children (so-called philosophical exemptions are available in about 20 states, including Pennsylvania, Texas, and much of the West) continues to rise. In states where such opting out is allowed, 2.6 percent of parents did so last year, up from 1 percent in 1991, according to the CDC.

(Minnesota is also one of those “opt-out” states.)

UPDATE: I asked Buddy Ferguson, public information officer for the Minnesota Department of Health, if there has been any noticeable change in the percentage of parents declining vaccination for their school-aged children in recent years. Specific numbers are difficult to come up with, he said, but “over the last several years, [the state has] seen some decline in immunization rates among children in Minnesota schools.” The percentage of children not immunized is still under 5 percent, he added.

The persistence of pseudo-science
Wallace does a good job of explaining how “well-intentioned people … motivated by love for their kids” have become vulnerable to the pseudo-science behind the anti-immunization movement:

Today, because the looming risk of childhood death is out of sight, it is also largely out of mind, leading a growing number of Americans to worry about what is in fact a much lesser risk: the ill effects of vaccines. If your newborn gets pertussis, for example, there is a 1 percent change that the baby will die of pulmonary hypertension or other complications. The risk of dying from the pertussis vaccine, by contrast, is practically nonexistent — in fact, no study has linked DTaP (the three-in-one immunization that protects against diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis) to death in children. Nobody in the pro-vaccine camp asserts that vaccines are risk-free, but the risks are minute in comparison to the alternative.
Still, despite peer-reviewed evidence, many parents ignore the math and agonize about whether to vaccinate. Why? For starters, the human brain has a natural tendency to pattern-match — to ignore the old dictum “correlation does not imply causation” and stubbornly persist in associating proximate phenomena. If two things coexist, the brain often tells us, they must be related. Some parents of autistic children noticed that their child’s condition began to appear shortly after a vaccination. The conclusion: “The vaccine must have caused the autism.” Sounds reasonable, even though, as many scientists have noted, it has long been known that autism and other neurological impairments often become evident at or around the age of 18 to 24 months, which just happens to be the same time children receive multiple vaccinations. Correlation, perhaps. But not causation, as studies have shown.

But rational thinking seems to have escaped many in the anti-vaccination movement.

For example, as Wallace outlines in her article, they vilify and even physically threaten Paul Offit, a Philadelphia pediatrician and advocate for mandatory vaccines, for “being in the pocket” of big Pharma because he receives a royalty from a vaccine he co-invented for rotavirus gastroenteritis, the most common form of severe and often life-threatening diarrhea in children. (Public health experts estimate that 600,000 children, including around 40 in the United States, die from this illness each year.)

Yet those same anti-vaccination crusaders welcome with open arms to their conferences a doctor and supplement salesman who proclaims to parents (without any empirical evidence): “No vaccines + more vitamin D = no autism.”

As Wallace writes, “If only it were that simple.”

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Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by Tim Walker on 10/27/2009 - 12:30 pm.

    And this is the result of the failure of our schools to teach critical thinking skills…

  2. Submitted by Nancy Hokkanen on 10/27/2009 - 03:26 pm.

    Consumers’ vaccine safety concerns are more the result of a mismanaged government vaccine program that fails to learn from children and adults who’ve been injured by vaccines.

    See the 2009 journal article “Adversomics” by the Mayo Clinic’s immunologist Dr. Gregory Poland et al.: “Clearly more comprehensive studies are needed to determine if there are associations between genetic variations among individuals and susceptibility to serious adverse events in response to vaccination. These factors combined with technologic ability will lead to a new era in vaccinology and better, safer vaccines” (Pediatr Infect Dis J 2009;28: 431–432).

    A vaccine program that uses avoidant pejoratives like “coincidence” and manipulates statistics rather than clinically investigating vaccine reactions in actual victims.

    A vaccine program that offers damage compensation only in a small percentage of hard-fought, years-long cases not thrown out of the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program.

    A vaccine program that minimizes the importance of physician reports to the Vaccine Adverse Events Reporting System by making them optional rather than mandatory.

    Consumer skepticism is also the result of medical trade union politics, plus “health care professionals” who cannot identify vaccine injury, fail to treat the medical symptoms, and falsely assure parents their children will simply grow out of the resultant disorders.

    Also, reduced vaccine uptake is the result of mainstream and alternative media who parrot CDC talking points and other blogs, rather than invest time in original investigations including listening to NVAC and ACIP meetings, publicizing rampant conflicts of interest, and making FOIA requests of government agencies unduly influenced by corporate interests.

    Before readers deify Dr. Paul Offit they should note that he has lost a legal battle regarding falsehoods in his book, which he’s forced to correct in subsequent editions… along with sending an apology to his victim, and making donations to autism charities.

    When product accountability is missing and the mantra “benefits outweigh risks” rather than “no risk” is considered safe enough, then consumer trust naturally erodes. That’s basic Marketing 101 — not to mention a failure of basic human ethics.

    A child injured or killed by a vaccine is just as tragic as a child injured or killed by disease.

  3. Submitted by Dave Eldred on 10/28/2009 - 11:14 am.

    “A child injured or killed by a vaccine is just as tragic as a child injured or killed by disease.”

    I don’t think anyone would dispute that.

    But, we can reduce total injuries and deaths if everyone gets the standard vaccination. It really is that simple.

    What is a shame is that vaccinations are available to virtually everyone in the US, and yet, people put their kids at greater risk by not having them vaccinated. Meanwhile, children in third world countries are dying of diseases they could easily and cheaply be protected from if they had access to proper vaccinations.

  4. Submitted by Kathryn Berg on 10/28/2009 - 04:15 pm.

    If only it were as simple as a math problem. Children aren’t math problems. We aren’t looking at totals.

    But if you want to make reference to numbers, I’m looking at the lack of numbers that would be the result of a study which compares the long term health outcomes of children who are vaccinated with children who are unvaccinated. It has never been done. It would certainly be easy enough to do, based on medical records. But I think that conventional medicine practitioners don’t want to see the result.

    I wouldn’t deify Dr. Offit either. I’m sure that the parents of the children who developed intussusception from the Rotavirus vaccine would rather he had not invented it.

    Rotavirus isn’t really such a serious issue in the US–even my children’s pediatrician said this. It is a bigger concern where there isn’t good drinking water to keep those children hydrated when they do develop it. But, being the vaccine pusher he is, he still asked me if I wanted to give my son the vaccine, a few months after he diagnosed him as having Rotavirus. Heavy Sigh….

  5. Submitted by Lisa Randall on 10/29/2009 - 03:27 pm.

    A few notes for Kathryn Berg.

    1. It is not actually “easy enough to do” to compare vaccinated against unvaccinated children’s health outcomes. This could only be studied retrospectively and would thus be fraught with various types of bias – enough that the results would likely be uninterpretable.

    2. The rotavirus vaccine invented by Dr. Offit (RotaTeq) does not cause intussusception. There was, however, a statistical association between a years-earlier rotavirus vaccine (RotaShield) and intussusception.

    3. The RotaTeq vaccine is pentavalent. It is thus still indicated for children who have already had one strain of rotavirus.

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