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Vaccines: The Debate Continues

Do news reports and online chat about vaccination risks--and particularly the MMR's supposed link to autism--give you pause?

Research published in the April issue of Pediatrics suggests that parents don't seem to be swayed by media reports of vaccination's potential risks.

Michael Smith, a pediatric infectious disease specialist (at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia when he did the study, now at the University of Louisville School of Medicine) found that immunization rates for U.S. kids ages 19 months to 35 months from 1995 to 2004 remained fairly steady, despite spikes in media coverage of claims that the measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine can cause autism.

Smith found that vaccination levels dropped in the two years following the initial publication in February 1998 in the British medical journal The Lancet of a later-discredited study proposing a link between the MMR vaccine and the onset of autism. But, he notes, there was little mainstream media coverage of that study until two years after its publication; by that time, vaccination levels had returned to normal and remained that way.

Smith's study is especially compelling in light of the latest spike in media coverage of events stemming from the purported MMR/autism link:

* Last month, the federal government agreed to pay an Atlanta family whose daughter developed autism after receiving vaccines against five diseases (including the three MMR covers) at one time.

* Around the same time, Sen. John McCain said there was strong evidence supporting a link between autism and vaccines. He pinpointed thimerosal, a mercury-containing preservative that used to be part of the MMR vaccine and others but has been virtually eliminated from vaccines since 2001. The medical community has voiced its disagreement with McCain's view--and with the ABC drama "Eli Stone," whose first episode, aired in early February, featured a storyline in which a court finds that a vaccine preservative caused a child's autism.

* The February issue of the British Medical Association journal Archives of Disease in Childhood published results of a good-sized study that showed, as have several studies before, that there's no connection between the MMR vaccine and autism. And a study in the January Archives of General Psychiatry revealed that autism diagnoses continued to increase in number in California after thimerosal was removed from vaccines.

You may not have read about rash of recent measles outbreaks: The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in February that in August 2007 an unvaccinated Japanese boy participating in the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Penn., came down with the measles; six people in three states subsequently caught the disease. An outbreak in January stemmed from an unvaccinated San Diego boy's travel to Switzerland, where he apparently contracted measles. He brought it home with him; 11 other unvaccinated kids were sickened. There have also been recent outbreaks in New Jersey and Arizona.

Those small outbreaks were contained, health officials said, because so many people are vaccinated. Had more people shunned the MMR, the disease could likely have spread farther and wider.

I don't remember actually making a decision to vaccinate my own kids. I certainly wasn't guided by anything I read in the news. But nowadays, as a recent New York Times article explained, some parents--often clusters of like-minded ones--are opting out.

Before the measles vaccine was introduced in 1963, half a million Americans a year got measles; 500 died from the illness each year. In an odd way, wiping out that disease has made room for us to worry about other ones.

I sympathize wholeheartedly with people who fear causing their kids harm when trying to do them good. And I know it's hard to keep the interests of society at large in mind when you're worrying about that precious babe in your arms.

But aren't parents who opt not to vaccinate banking on others' willingness to vaccinate their kids to keep measles at bay? It isn't fair for only some of us to shoulder that risk--even if it's just a perceived risk.

By Jennifer LaRue Huget  |  April 9, 2008; 2:00 PM ET
Categories:  Family Health  
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