— I am old enough to remember what polio looked like in the 1950s and 60s. I have held babies in my arms who have died of whooping cough. That you can prevent those illnesses with a very simple shot is among the greatest scientific breakthroughs in our lifetime. But one of the big problems is that vaccinations have been so successful, most parents in this country today have never seen nor heard of anybody who has had these illnesses.
You think it can’t happen to you.
In 1998, British doctor Dr. Andrew Wakefield published one report of 12 children where he linked the MMR (mumps, measles and rubella) vaccines to autism. Since then, there have been numerous big studies -- including one with 530,000 children and one with 1.8 million children -- and no link was found. This week a major British medical journal showed that Wakefield and his colleagues faked the research on the child patients.
As a physician -- and I am a former pediatrician -- I can honestly say that when that report was first published, science and public health took a huge step backward. We have a lot of mistrust to mop up.
Since that first erroneous report was published, we have seen outbreaks of measles and whooping cough in various cities around the country. In fact, California in 2010 broke a 55-year-old record for the number of cases of whooping cough. That's directly related to parents who haven’t vaccinated their children.
For people who have compromised immune systems, are on chemotherapy or are a cancer survivor, if they come in contact with a child carrying one of these illnesses who hasn’t been immunized, it could be a death sentence. As a society, we have a responsibility to protect each other.
Despite Wakefield's work linking vaccines to autism being called "an elaborate fraud," many msnbc.com readers remain skeptical about the causes of autism. Read on for my answers to their questions.
We don’t know the cause. We certainly think there is a genetic component. If I look at just my family, I have a niece who is severely autistic and is institutionalized. I have a 16-year-old son with Asperger’s. My brother, who is a brilliant brain surgeon, has probably obsessive compulsive disorder and is mild on the autism scale. I have an uncle who is an engineer, but has social anxiety.
When my son was struggling as a toddler, I was in as much denial as any other mother. But I still got him vaccinated because I never believed that vaccines caused it. When I did the soul searching, the signs were there before he would have gotten the vaccine.
The first MMR vaccine isn’t given until 12 to 16 months. Almost all children will start to have some soft signs of autism around that time -- that’s what’s made the [Wakefield] report such an easy thing to buy. The timing of the vaccine and autism's early signs coincide. But just because two things happen around the same time does not mean that one thing causes the other.
I want to say to everyone, you’re entitled to your opinion. I know the pain of autism. But you’re not entitled to your own science. This is where we have to stand back and trust the concrete science. There is not a conspiracy here.
I think what we’re seeing is a rise in autism diagnosis because we’ve expanded the parameters of the autism spectrum to include things like Asperger's syndrome and mild cases that perhaps years ago would have been diagnosed as something else.
We still need to figure out why is autism increasing. What’s causing it? What are the environmental factors? What are the genetic factors? We know it’s more often found in boys. It may run in some families.
What I want to implore for people to do is close the book on vaccines and autism and take that money and those research dollars and sink it into good, honest, reliable autism research, so we can figure these questions out. No more wasting money on the stuff we know isn’t going to take us anywhere.
Babies do have a strong immune system. When a baby is in utero, it is swimming around in sterile amniotic fluid. What happens when the water breaks and baby comes through the birth canal? That baby is colonized with trillions, not millions, trillions of bacteria and viruses. That’s the big immune bump.
There's no science to show spacing vaccines out further is any better. That’s when you start to skip a dose and get partially immunized children. It’s dangerous and it doesn’t make things better. The reason the vaccine schedule exists is we know this is the time a child is more susceptible to these illnesses.
The reason pediatricians started spacing shots was to appease parents, to say a little bit of something is better than nothing.
Some kids do. There will always be a small percent of the population who may not be right for a vaccine. Your doctor will know it early, usually based on family history or history of allergies.
If you child was born with a bad immune problem or some other illness, your pediatrician may decide not to vaccinate. But that is a very, very, very small portion of the population. When you have a healthy child you’re being responsible and helping others by vaccinating your child.