AustinPUG Health

AustinPUG Health

One high-profile example of today’s information war is the debate about whether to vaccinate children. Vaccination programs have virtually eradicated dangerous childhood diseases including measles, whooping cough, diphtheria, polio, tetanus and meningitis. However, debunked studies and junk science have convinced many parents to choose not to vaccinate their children.

When students earn a Masters of Public Health, they learn more about how skipping vaccines may threaten public health. Currently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention forecast suggests that 2013 could see the worst measles outbreak in over a decade. Nearly two-thirds of reported measles cases have broken out in three distinct communities that avoid vaccines for philosophical or religious reasons. Vaccinations have been unfairly demonized. Let’s examine a few of the myths.

Isn’t Natural Immunity Better Than Acquired Immunity From Vaccines?

Natural immunity, in most cases, is superior to acquired immunity from vaccines. Unfortunately, to build natural immunity, children have to contract dangerous diseases. The price of attempting to build natural immunity could be death from measles, birth defects from rubella, liver cancer from hepatitis B, mental retardation from Hib), paralysis from polio, deafness from mumps or pneumonia from pneumococcus. Kids that scratch chickenpox sores until the skin breaks also put themselves at risk for antibiotic-resistant infections like MRSA.

Forty percent of children who contract measles have to be hospitalized, and three out of every 1,000 will die from complications including pneumonia and encephalitis. Infants don’t receive measles vaccinations until after their first birthdays, so exposure to measles cases contracted by unvaccinated children are a threat to babies all over the country. Additionally, some children cannot receive vaccinations because of allergies to vaccine ingredients or because of severe reactions to an earlier dose. For these kids, the only available disease protection is the vaccination of those around them.

Interestingly, a few vaccines actually develop better immune responses than the diseases themselves. These include tetanus, Hib, pneumococcal and human papilloma virus (HPV) vaccines.

Do Vaccines Cause Autism?

In 1998, Andrew Wakefield of the U.K. published a study in the medical journal Lancet. The study proclaimed a link between childhood vaccinations and autism development. In 2011, Lancet retracted the paper, and the U.K. government stripped Wakefield of his medical license. The following information discredited Wakefield’s study:

  • Falsified patient histories. An investigation by the British Medical Journal found evidence that Wakefield altered the medical histories of all 12 patients included in the study. Of the 12 children studied, five showed developmental issues prior to the MMR injection, and three never had autism.
  • Conflict of interest. Wakefield was paid $674,000 ( 435,000) by a law firm that intended to sue vaccine manufacturers. After this information was unveiled in 2004, most of Wakefield’s co-authors withdrew their names from the paper.
  • Inability to replicate results. Two U.K. studies completed in 1999 found no link between immunizations and autism. In 2001 and 2004, the Institute of Medicine found no causal relationship between vaccines and autism. A study of nearly 1,000 children published in the Journal of Pediatrics found that vaccine exposure before age two did not correlate with increased autism risk.

Symptoms of autism do appear close to the time that children receive their scheduled MMR vaccines. However, the timing is a coincidence.

Do Vaccines Contain Mercury?

Until 2001, vaccines for children under six contained thimerosal. Thimerosal is a preservative that prevents bacterial contamination of vaccines. Thimerosal does contain mercury, but childhood vaccines no longer use the preservative. Flu shots and vaccines for older children and adults may contain thimerosal, but thimerosal-free versions are available.

Are Vaccines Cash Cows for Doctors and Manufacturers?

Doctors do not make profits from vaccines because the reimbursement they receive from HMOs does not cover labor costs of vaccine administration. Also, vaccines comprise only 1.5 percent of pharmaceutical company revenue. Thirty years ago, 30 companies produced vaccines. Now, five companies manufacture 80 percent of all vaccines.

The Bottom Line

Because of Wakefield’s irresponsible and potentially dishonest study, governments and autism advocates have spent countless dollars trying to confirm Wakefield’s hypothesis, diverting funds needed to investigate autism’s real causes. Additionally, Wakefield and those who peddle junk science have created a needless public health scare by vilifying vaccines. Although their intentions may be good, spreading misinformation could cause illness and even death for children all over the globe.


About the Author: Ginger Patterson writes about pediatrics with a focus on childhood infectious diseases.

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