This weekend, Chicago-area parents wondering whether or not to vaccinate their babies, toddlers, school-age kids or teenagers face a tough decision when it comes to expert advice: should they listen to Jenny McCarthy or to their pediatrician? McCarthy is slated to give the key-note speech at the Autism One conference in Rosemont on Saturday.
Now don't get me wrong. I think Jenny McCarthy looks great wearing an orange bikini on the cover of a national magazine this month. Even with air-brushing, I could never look like that. I think that her partner, Jim Carrey, has done some exceptional work in several movies, and that the "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," one of my top 10 movies, is totally underrated. But I don't think that they should be making vaccination policy. I also fervently believe that organizations like Autism One that attempt to make the utterly unscientific claim that vaccines cause autism endanger all of our children.
I don't grace magazine covers, and I have never starred in a movie, but like my daughter's pediatrician, I studied hard in college, learning a fair amount of science and decision-making skills, worked harder in medical school and harder still in residency training, and I have been taking care of patients for over a dozen years. I am an internist, and I know many important things about vaccinations, but the bottom line is they save lives. And there's no evidence that they cause autism.
It's really too bad that The Lancet, one the of top five medical journals, once published an article suggesting that the MMR vaccine could increase the risk of autism. They have since retracted the article, publicly apologized for publishing it, and explained that the authors falsified their data. But the mere publication of this wrong-headed theory has helped to fan the flames of the anti-vaccination community intensely. And now babies and kids are not getting their vaccines, and they are getting sick. Some are even dying.
I empathize with parents who are raising a child with autism, and find the skyrocketing rates of kids now diagnosed with this disease extremely worrisome, but demonizing vaccines is the wrong answer.
Before kids were routinely vaccinated against, say diphtheria or measles, hundreds of thousands of children would contract these diseases every year. Some kids would get a fever and a cough. But many would struggle to breath and some kids would get encephalitis, (which can lead to permanent brain damage or deafness). Some kids would even die.
Parents who refuse to vaccinate their kids not only put their own offspring at risk, they also put other children at risk through the well-known phenomenon of "herd immunity." This means that if almost all kids in a group have been vaccinated against a disease, an outbreak is much less likely to occur. Vaccination not only protects your own child, it also protects the other children in day care or third grade or on the soccer team.
My friend K.S., a local pediatrician and the mother of three boys, said that a few years ago, a baby cared for by her practice died of pertussis. The baby had been receiving the appropriate vaccinations, but had not yet reached the age of full immunity, and contracted pertussis from her un-vaccinated teenage uncle. Pertussis had hit local high schools hard, and in this example of a failure of herd immunity, outbreaks that make teenagers miserable with months of coughing but don't actually kill them put babies at mortal risk. As a result, K.S. and her partners no longer allow children of parents who refuse to allow routine vaccinations into their pediatric practice.
So as the recent H1N1 flu outbreak brought infectious disease and the role of vaccines once again to the forefront of parents' minds, I have some advice for parents who chose to listen to Jenny McCarthy and opt to forego vaccinations: pray, wash your hands a lot and find new playmates, because I will not let your child endanger mine.