This past weekend, catching up on emails as I do, I came across a blog from Seattle Mama Doc. All that showed from my inbox was a partial subject line: “The Link Between Vaccines and …”. Now, we have worked with Dr. Wendy Sue Swanson on several occasions and know her as a pro-vaccinator— so needless to say my curiosity was piqued. What are vaccines linked to? What breaking news did I miss? Eagerly, I followed the link.
I don’t know if it was relief or optimism that overtook me, but I’ll save you the suspense— “The Link Between Vaccines and Optimism”. Yes, she said it! (Well actually the Today show interviewer said it first on accident.) But what an incredible thought! The idea that vaccines are actually giving us a reason to be optimistic. Because of vaccines we are able to lead healthier, longer lives than generations before us—this is something to be excited about! Coincidence that this happens to be National Infant Immunization Week and World Immunization Week? Maybe. But what better time to have a look at what vaccines are linked to?
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) published numbers last week that show, that since the launch of their Vaccines for Children (VCF) Program 20 years ago, in which time 78.6 million children were born in the U.S., routine childhood immunizations are estimated to have:
- Prevented 322 million illnesses
- Prevented 21 million hospitalizations
- Helped avoid 732,000 premature deaths
- Saved $295 billion
These are amazing numbers. However, the CDC also reports that recent measles outbreaks underscore the importance of sustaining high vaccination coverage. In 2011, 206 people in the U.S. were reported as having measles—the highest number of cases in one year since 1996. 129 cases have been reported in the U.S. this year so far.
So let’s face it, there is still a lot of controversy about the relationship between vaccinations and autism. This is a question that parents continue to ask despite much evidence that there is no relationship between childhood immunization and ASDs (Autism Spectrum Disorders).
I’ve puzzled a lot as a Pediatrician, who has practiced my trade for over 45 years, why a practice that has saved so many children’s lives has now come to be feared. I grew up in an era when I was forbidden to go to the beach or a public pool cause that was where one contracted polio. As a medical student doing research in Pakistan, I visited wards of people dying of smallpox. As a resident in New York City in 1970, I cared for scores of young children with life threatening episodes of measles and meningitis.
These days none of the pediatric residents I teach at Seattle Children’s Hospital have ever seen a case of polio or measles or H Flu meningitis. This is a triumph of public health. Yet measles still kills thousands of children every year in Africa and there has been an outbreak of polio recently in the Middle East. We haven’t won the public health battle to eliminate these diseases everywhere, but have made a huge impact on saving children’s lives.
I nevertheless DO NOT discount the concerns that parents have about immunization and its relationship to autism. Autism remains a huge increasing public health problem and we don’t yet have a scientific understanding of why this is happening. In the face of unknowns, it is reasonable for parents to try everything possible to protect their children.
Nevertheless a little history is however important to remember. The first account suggesting a relationship between immunizations and autism came from a British surgeon, Andrew Wakefield, whose research proposed a relationship between autism and the MMR vaccine. Subsequently no one has replicated his research, his data has been shown to be fraudulent, his research paper was retracted by the prestigious journal Lancet, his rights to practice medicine in the UK were removed and he no longer has privileges to practice medicine.
Despite this there remain many people that still believe in his ideas. These ideas have morphed over the years to beliefs that mercury in vaccines cause autism, despite evidence of a rising autism prevalence FOLLOWING removal of mercury almost entirely from child hood vaccines.
Many other vaccine fears continue. In fact, it seems as soon as one notion is thoroughly disproven another appears via the Internet. I know that we cannot convince everyone about the safety of vaccines and the lack of relationship between ASDs and these life saving medications. Nevertheless I personally will continue to advocate for rational, scientific, evidence-based approaches to the understanding of the causes and treatments of ASDs. Science does not always move in a straight line. We make mistakes, have faulty understanding of the mysteries of human biology- but we are trying to make the lives of children and their families better. Immunization is one such triumphant effort.