Two well-publicized events caught my attention last week. Each is terribly sad in its own way, but each offers insight into what remains a contentious issue: the safety of vaccines for children
Story #1: On May 28, 2008, a thunderstorm knocked out the electrical power in Memphis. Unfortunately for 61-year-old Dianne Odell, the emergency generator in her house also failed. Tragically, her family was unable to keep the iron lung – in which she had lived for the past 58 years – working, and the last polio victim in America still using an iron lung to breathe, died.
For me, these events offer an instructive point-counterpoint.
Ms. Odell’s death reminded me of how lucky we are to be free from the diseases that have been eliminated by childhood vaccinations. I’ll bet you have never known anyone who had polio or smallpox or diphtheria or tetanus or whooping cough or… When I was in pediatric training, H Flu bacteria frequently caused meningitis and other fatal infections. I well remember a two-year-old patient in my private practice who went stone cold deaf after such an infection. Now our pediatric residents may never see a single case.
In addition to the millions of children who owe their lives to vaccines, UNICEF estimates that more than one third of the 10,000,000 children who die world-wide every year would live if they were properly vaccinated. Let me repeat that: 3,000,000 kids a year wouldn’t die if they were given the immunizations that the GOVs decry.
There is zero doubt: childhood immunizations are one of the great inventions of the 20th century (really in the history of mankind). Their stunning success, however, has spoiled us and, especially if you lack imagination and a historical sense, you might not grasp what a blessing they are. You might even argue that children would be safer without them because of their rare (real or imagined) side effects and because you have never seen a child suffering with measles. It’s a profound miscalculation, with potentially devastating consequences.
Enter the “Green Our Vaccines” campaign.
First: a brilliant name! After all, who is against ‘greener’ (i.e., safer) vaccines? Who does not want to make our already very safe vaccines even safer? Sign me up on that one. But if you object to their movement (as I do, for reasons I’ll explain), their clever name makes you appear to be anti-green (would that be ‘brown’ or ‘puce’?) and a heartless advocate of loading kids up with nasty toxins.
Their name, however, is the only brilliant thing about this ‘movement’. The rest is sadly misguided. I take no pleasure in saying this, as these parents (mostly of autistic children) are just being admirably she-bearish about their kids. But in doing so, they have taken a wrong turn, with the potential to cause great collateral harm to their naive followers. Here’s why.
- Their agenda is more than anti-preservatives, it is anti-immunizations. Here’s what Jenny McCarthy had to say in an unguarded moment: “I am surely not going to ask anyone to vaccinate. But if I had another child, there’s no way in hell…for my next kid – which I’m never going to have – there’s no way.” I suspect some of the sponsors of GOV see the elimination of ‘toxins’ as a first, more acceptable step in eliminating vaccines altogether via scare tactics.
- They rally for “100% safe immunizations.” While the rate of side effects (mostly minor) is not zero, there is no such thing (nor will there ever be) a 100% safe vaccine (nor a 100% safe car, nor a 100% safe medicine, nor a 100% safe life). Of course we can and should seek – as we have – to make them safer. However, if one objectively weighs the benefit/cost ratio of current vaccines, they (along with clean water) remain the greatest health boon for children in the proud history of medicine.
- The GOVs continue to argue that vaccines and/or the preservatives in them cause autism. There’s not enough space here to refute this argument (see my blog + see the reports from the FDA + Institute of Medicine on this). Suffice it to say that, given how much damage would be visited upon unimmunized kids, you would think they would muster very strong evidence to support their hypotheses. In fact, the preponderance of studies show them to be mistaken (for example, the incidence of autism has not declined with the withdrawal of thimerosal from most vaccines). But scientific evidence does not dissuade the GOVs from their absolute certitude. I find their apparent indifference to the potential consequences of their anti-vaccine screeds to be irresponsible and, in the end, unconscionable.
- They promote distrust and paranoia about the “establishment.” If you do not accept their view, you are the bad guy. Perhaps you are part of the vast profit-over-well-being pharma industries. Perhaps you are part of the FDA, which has vested interest in not being proved wrong after all these years. Perhaps you like making money off autistic kids. Any way you slice it, you’re just another conspiratorial evil-doer.
- They claim that the sheer number of immunizations (which I view as a blessing) somehow overwhelms the immune system, so immunizations should be spread out or postponed. Sounds reasonable. Could be true. The problem with this interesting hypothesis is that there is no evidence that it is true and accumulating evidence that it is not. Therefore, why postpone and thereby increase the potential risks for our children?
I can’t help but wonder what Ms Odell might have said to the Green Our Vaccine parents and to all parents who are reluctant to immunize their kids. Of the many gifts you give your children, being a fully immunized human is right up there at the top.