By Dr. Gena Vennikandam
For a lot of kids, a trip to the doctor is a dreaded experience that quickly turns mom or dad into a reviled villain. Only the meanest of parents would subject their child to the evil doctors wielding their torturous needles.
At least, that’s how I saw it when I was a kid. I didn’t know that those needle pricks were not to harm me but to protect me from a fate far worse, and from doctors much more invasive. How could I know? I was just a kid.
Today, more parents are making a conscious choice to be seen as the hero and not subject their children to vaccine-injecting needles out of fear that there is a direct correlation between vaccines and autistic spectrum disorders (ASD).
According to a 2011 Harris Interactive Poll, 18 percent of Americans believe that standard childhood vaccinations cause autism, while 30 percent are in the I-don’t-know-maybe corner.
Children today receive 26 inoculations by 2 years of age including the one staving off measles, mumps and rubella (MMR)—the one most parents are afraid of. And there’s concern that too many vaccinations are putting too many chemicals into too new a body.
The worry that the additive Thimerisol was the autism-causing culprit used to carry some weight. But Thimerisol has not been used in the MMR vaccine in over a decade.
“Over the last 30–40 years, we have refined the ingredients in the vaccine,” says Dr. Robert M. Jacobson, clinical director at the Mayo Clinic Vaccine Research Group. “There is no such thing as immunological overload; that’s an [inaccurate] theoretical concept.”
But vaccine-wary parents raise the issue of cause and effect. Regression to ASD has been seen to occur within 12–24 months, the same window as some vaccinations. So, a kid is given his or her MMR vaccine and shortly thereafter, begins to display signs of autism.
This, however, may be more a temporal association than a causal one, as researchers are finding autistic behavior beginning early in development.
There has been a rise in the amount of children diagnosed with ASD in recent years, but this is mostly attributed to better screening and early diagnosis techniques. And children are actually receiving fewer antigens today to confer the same immunity as a generation ago.
There are those who figure there’s no point in vaccinating against mumps, measles or polio. “Why vaccinate against it? When was the last time there was an outbreak of polio?” they could say. Exactly.
I have encountered some parents who follow the herd-immunity method. This concept is based around the idea that since their kids are hanging around children who have been vaccinated, there’s no reason to vaccinate their own. This notion leaves the unimmunized child highly susceptible to contracting a vaccine-preventable disease.
We see this method used in certain states like Washington, which has a low immunization rate and thus, has one of the highest incidences of vaccine-preventable diseases, such as pertussis (whooping cough). Because we don’t see these preventable diseases anymore, we often fail to appreciate the seriousness of them.
And now autism is the most feared and dreaded childhood disease today. It’s a serious and heartbreaking condition for sure, but it doesn’t kill children.
According to Pediatrics, the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, vaccinations have helped to increase the life span in the United States by about 30 years as well as reducing and eradicating what were once common diseases. Reported cases of polio, smallpox and diphtheria are prime examples.
Many parents have become victims of good science vs. bad science. Dr. Kenneth Alexander, chief of Pediatric Infectious Diseases at the University of Chicago Medical Center, says, “Consider the quality of information you are looking at. Who are they, and where are they getting their facts?”
Many fearful parents believe that vaccine safety testing is an overlooked component, absent of adequate safety research. However, vaccines are put through the wringer, tested on larger populations over a long period of time, more so than any other medications on the market. Not only do the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention monitor this process, so do the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, Committee on Infectious Diseases and the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Concerns are even passed through top scientists at the Institute of Medicine, an organization that addresses and advises the concerns of government policy makers, including the president of the United States. Still, sometimes the facts are not enough to sway the minds of the few that are antivaccine.
It is important to note that research about ASD and its cause is being done. Consideration is being given to the possibility of pre- and postnatal triggers such as genetic mutations, advanced parental age, maternal diabetes, teratogenic agents (substances that can interfere with normal development in-utero) and possible environmental factors; heavy metals, pollution, pesticides, etc. The blame should not default to vaccinations.
Of course parents want the best for their children. But decisions must be based on facts, not fear. When it comes down to it, it’s the parents who need to make the choice. After all, they’re the adults. They should know better.
Published in Chicago Health Summer/Fall 2013