Harmful Myths About Vaccines Exposed

Published March 17, 2011

Review of Deadly Choices: How the Anti-Vaccine Movement Threatens Us All, by Paul A. Offit, M.D., 288 pages, Basic Books, 2010.

In 1998, the once-esteemed journal Lancet published an article by Andrew Wakefield that concluded, based on 12 case studies, there is a likely link between childhood vaccinations and autism. This one paper spawned a major anti-vaccination movement among the media and parents of autistic children.

The ramifications have been enormous. Paul Offit, chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, argues in Deadly Choices, an excellent chronology of the anti-vaccine movement, that major risks of childhood disease epidemics exist today because the vaccination rates are dropping below the 90 percent standard at which entire populations are protected.

In the first week of January 2011, the British Medical Journal published an article and an editorial explaining the 1998 study which provoked the expanded vaccine scare was in fact an “elaborate fraud.” The damage has been done, however, and Offit tells the story in minute detail, describing the individuals and groups that thwarted the real science that clearly indicated the great good done by childhood vaccinations.

Offit also documents recent small epidemics of whooping cough, mumps, meningitis, and measles among U.S. populations with low vaccination rates.

TV Show Incited Scare

The modern anti-vaccine movement was born on April 19, 1982 when a Washington, DC TV station aired a one-hour documentary titled “DPT [diptheria, pertussis, tetanus] Vaccine Roulette” which made its announcer Lea Thompson into a media star and a de facto leader of the anti-vaccine movement.

Thompson presented case studies which misconstrued the facts or simply falsified them, and she introduced individuals with bogus medical credentials to vouch for her statements.

In the two decades since “Vaccine Roulette” aired, many serious medical studies were performed in search of any possible connection between vaccinations and damage to children’s health—but none were found, Offit notes. It would be 25 years before another major media outlet attempted to put things right—John Stossel’s program “Scared Straight” in 1997 raised and refuted the bogus claims against childhood vaccinations.

Celebrities Fueled the Fire

Offit documents the horrific roles played in this crisis by media figures and celebrities. In 1994, when Heather Whitestone became the first disabled women to become Miss America, her mother claimed her daughter’s hearing loss had been caused by her DPT vaccination. Jenny McCarthy, a 1994 Playboy Playmate whose son is autistic, became a New York Times bestselling author while broadcasting the anti-vaccine message across the media.

Others entered the fray as well—including former National Institute of Health Director Bernadine Healy and Barbara Loe Fisher, a prominent consumer advocate—all ignoring the medical science that has clearly exonerated vaccines.

Others who offered modest critiques of vaccines were used by anti-vaccine forces to spread fear. In 2007, for example, California pediatrician Robert Sears authored a book titled The Vaccine Book: Making the Right Decision for Your Child. Offit explains Sears’ goal was not to create fear of vaccines but to argue children’s immune systems would be better served by spacing the vaccinations over time, but the movement used his book to elevate unfounded fears.

Vaccination History Told

Offit also provides fascinating material on medical history. He explains the beginning of vaccinations in 1850 in England, when they were developed in an effort to eradicate smallpox. Even then, there was an anti-vaccine movement, he notes. Offit tells of the many laws passed either to promote or impede widespread vaccinations and the science behind the development and utilization of vaccines.

In the early 1900s, children routinely suffered and died from diseases now easily prevented by vaccines. Americans expected then that diphtheria would kill twelve thousand people each year; German measles (rubella) would cause as many as 20,000 babies to be born blind, deaf, or disabled; and polio would paralyze 15,000 and kill 1,000 annually. Today these diseases have been all but eliminated.

Need for Knowledge

The anti-vaccine scare is one of a myriad of contemporary problems caused by the diminution of scientific understanding among the public and the government and the loss of respect for the scientific method among many technically trained individuals. The combination of a desire for 15 minutes of fame paired with the ability to spread falsehoods instantly to the masses through the internet has only exacerbated these problems.

If more people with an interest in knowing the truth read this book and explain in simple terms the real medical science that fully supports the use of vaccinations, we may reduce the mayhem caused by the anti-vaccine movement. In the meantime, I refer the reader to what one intelligent pediatrician, Brad Dyer of Lionville, Pennsylvania, presents to all his patients:

“We firmly believe in the effectiveness of vaccines to prevent serious illnesses and save lives. We firmly believe in the safety of vaccines. We firmly believe that all children and young adults should receive all the recommended vaccines according to the schedule published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics. We firmly believe based on all available literature, evidence, and current studies that vaccines do not cause autism or other developmental disabilities. Furthermore, by not vaccinating your child you are taking selfish advantage of thousands of others who do vaccinate their children, which decreases the likelihood that your child will contract one of these diseases.”

Jay Lehr ([email protected]) is science director for The Heartland Institute.