Pro-vaccine movement could try opponents’ tactics

Maybe we just need to scare the hell out of people.

That was the message from one the country’s leading advocates for childhood immunizations during a talk last week at the American Academy of Pediatrics annual meeting in San Francisco.

After all, said Paul Offit, MD, chair of infectious diseases at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, that’s what the anti-vaccine lobby is doing: instilling fear without the basis of fact.

What he suggested is that if people truly understood the dangers of NOT vaccinating their children – they would be scared by facts, not misinformation.

“There have been events in the past that could have sparked an anti-vaccine movement, but they did not,” Dr. Offit said, citing a yellow fever vaccine in the 1940s that was contaminated and infected 330,000 soldiers with Hepatitis B; or the bad polio vaccine made by one manufacturer that paralyzed 200,000 children and killed 10 of them.

“But that didn’t spark the controversy,” Dr. Offit said. Instead, he said, “the day fear began” was April 19, 1982. That’s when a local District of Columbia TV station aired a sensational story called “Vaccine Roulette” about children who may have been harmed by the pertussis vaccine.

The story made national news and led to the formation of what is now the National Vaccine Information Center, the leading voice against vaccines in this country. It is a well-connected, well-funded and media savvy group.

It’s also dangerous, Dr. Offit said, because it spreads misinformation.

It took years, Dr. Offit said, for the medical community to formally refute the pertussis story and prove the vaccine was not to blame for the children’s maladies. But then, the anti-vaccine movement moved to a different target: it blamed one thing and then another.

They are spreading fear, Dr. Offit said. Parents are scared. And as a result of their success, more and more children are not getting vaccinated. The “herd immunity” – what keeps the population safe (even older people who may have outgrown their vaccinations) because enough people get vaccinated to keeps the diseases at bay – is breaking down.

We’re seeing the ugly consequences: there was a measles epidemic in 2008; a mumps outbreak in New York and New Jersey in 2009; and right now in California, there are more cases of pertussis (4,200) than there have been in 50 years.

These are diseases we should not have to deal with; that children should not have to suffer with. There was a time, when polio was so frightening, that despite the dangers of the vaccines in the ‘50s, parents lined up their children for hours to get the shots or sugar cubes.

While there may be some legitimate concern about vaccines, it should be nothing compared to the fear of children with diphtheria, whooping cough, rubella and small pox. We can easily prevent diseases that kill children. And yet the anti-vaccine forces, with the help of the news and entertainment media, play on parents fears with misinformation and inconceivable motives.

Now granted, the news media have the right, even the obligation, to report adverse reactions. But, ethically, it should be presented in a way that accurately portrays the evidence that predominately shows the safety and efficacy of childhood vaccines. If they don’t, the media is part of the fear campaign and misinformation will guide more parents’ decisions to not immunize their children.

“We need to study different ways to educate people,” Dr. Offit told his colleagues. “Maybe we need to scare them (with the facts.)”

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