Clad in yoga pants sipping all-natural GMO-free lattes, we think ourselves beyond making primitive decisions based on fear. But out of the jungle and into bigger villages, with smoke signals cleverly disguised as iPhones, we’re still a species letting fear-based decisions severely fuck up our lives.
This way of thinking has backfired before. In 1974, rumors falsely circulated around Japan that the pertussis vaccine had caused myriad side effects. People were told they no longer needed the vaccine because pertussis was rare anyway, and nobody had died from the disease in recent memory. In the ensuing carnage, pertussis vaccination rates plummeted by nearly 90 percent. By 1979, a mere five years later, a previously manageable few hundred cases skyrocketed to over 13,000 infected patients and 41 deaths.
By 1981, the fervor to bring back diseases formerly long forgotten had left the island nation, but the tradewinds drift west.
Here in Los Angeles, where some schools have the same vaccination rates as the Sudan, the government has had to take action. Children were getting sick, and even the power of Disney magic doesn’t prevent measles.
Like an immune response to a viral epidemic, SB-277 took aim at inoculating California against the lethal anti-vaccine movement. The state bill was was introduced in February and signed into law last month, and will go into effect January of 2016. Bolstered with widespread support from the medical community, the law eliminates non-medical vaccine exemptions for children attending school, preventing parents from allowing their children to become vectors for a long list of preventable communicable diseases.
A Google search of “SB-277” reveals websites calling the law “Draconian,” a “science fraud,” and comparing vaccinating school children to the types of experiments conducted at Tuskegee. Efforts to repeal the law have already gone into full swing. Rounding out the bevy of celebrities without immunology degrees in full support of the return of polio, the maelstrom of internet outrage included productive and well-informed tweets from Jim Carrey, Kirstie Alley and Erin Brockovich.
So where does this leave parents who aren’t sure where to turn for advice on vaccines or SB-277? I talked to some experts to find out.
Safety In Numbers
“Doctors are parents too. We’re on the same side,” Dr. Paul Offit, co-inventor of the rotavirus vaccine and the director of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, told me. It’s been an uphill battle for Offit and his colleagues to communicate the realities of vaccines.
“Vaccines are held to the highest standard of safety that we have for medical products,” Offit said. “They’re tested in tens of thousands of children before licensure. The two rotavirus vaccines were tested in 130,000 children before licensure. Then, after they’re licensed, they’re tested prospectively back through the Vaccine Safety Datalink.” Offit said that there’s no Drug Safety Datalink; this is a level of monitoring that’s only performed for vaccines.
So why, even with so much testing, are parents made nervous by these disease-preventing potions? After all, how often do you hear parents rejecting Benadryl and Advil? As Offit told me, “It’s about perspective.” Unlike these medications with predictable side effects at normal dosages, “when vaccines work, nothing happens.” You just proceed... to not get sick.
Alarmists will commonly cite vaccine ingredients such as aluminum and formaldehyde as reason for concern. However, there is only 0.25 mg of aluminum in a vaccine; you’ll consume 800 times more aluminum in an antacid. And though formaldehyde may invoke mental images of disemboweled frogs in biology class, there’s far more formaldehyde in a pear than a vaccine, and we even naturally process formaldehyde in our bodies. The vaccine components that self-declared internet experts hotly debate are not of concern to immunologists who have been through decades of schooling; that alone should tell you a lot more than anything a failed comic actor ever will—yet parental fears persist.
The Cause That Wasn’t
Despite all the testing and meta analysis supporting the safety of vaccines, a vocal group of non-scientists with a talent for sticking their fingers in their ears and humming has their doubts. The most commonly cited fear is a risk of autism. While there has been a rise in diagnosis in recent years, there are multiple reasons. And none of which has to do with Jenny McCarthy’s “frickin’ mercury.”
Try to envision autism as anything else that needs diagnosing. We’re at a point where we can correctly define and diagnose it. For comparison, various cancer detection methods were invented throughout the twentieth century; cancer was always there before the early diagnostic tests, but we’re better at diagnosing it now, so when someone just died of “old age” or “just got sick” in 1915, today we can diagnose the cancer as esthesioneuroblastoma.
In the case of autism diagnosis, a number of factors have impacted this rate increase, including a revised criteria and better access to care. Autism awareness has risen at the same time; It would have been naive not to expect more children to be diagnosed. And when looking at the history of autism diagnosis, it becomes abundantly clear that this has been with us all along.
Offit sees opposition to the new law as opposition to something very disconnected from reality. “When parents who were against this measure got up to speak against SB-277, what did they say? ‘I’m the parent of a vaccine-damaged child,’ and proceeded to talk about things that vaccines don’t do. ‘My child has developmental delays or autism or diabetes because of vaccines.’ Vaccines don’t do that, so therefore their concerns are ill-founded. Therefore, their choices not to vaccinate are ill-founded,” he said.
Part of the Herd
Dr. Michael Ginsberg, a board-certified pediatrician based in Fairfield, CA, has very tiny, very precious reasons to fight against this movement in his practice. “I have a few kids who are on chemotherapy for leukemia and also some preemies with chronic lung disease and/or congenital heart disease,” he said. “These children either cannot be vaccinated or can be vaccinated are still at risk from severe complications, including death, of vaccine-preventable diseases.”
Ginsberg’s adherence to practicing evidence-based medicine includes not accepting patients who arbitrarily opt out of vaccinating; this policy is in place to protect children who are unable to vaccinate. “In herd immunity, you are trying to make it so that a disease has nowhere to go. So if 98 percent of a population is immune to, say, measles, then only 2 percent of people are susceptible. So measles has to find the 2 percent of the population that is susceptible,” he said. “This becomes very unlikely, very quickly and so the disease cannot spread. If vaccination rates are lower, say only 90 percent, then it becomes much more likely that that the disease will spread.”
If patients with legitimate medical reasons not to vaccinate are surrounded by more and more people who choose to avoid vaccines, what do you think will happen to their very susceptible immune systems? Why should a doctor choose to subject a patient to that risk?
Legalities and Loopholes
So will SB-277 help California’s low vaccination rates? Dorit Reiss, a law professor at UC-Hastings who frequently lectures and writes on vaccine law, is hopeful, but with reservations. Poring over the law, she told to me that “to get a medical exemption, the doctor does have to explain why the child is exempt, but if the doctor does that there really isn’t any supervision right now or anyone authorized to challenge. That can change, if needed, but abuse is possible.”
Unfortunately, she’s right about finding a doctor who will give medical exemptions. Dr. Bob Sears, notorious anti-vax doctor in Southern California who doesn’t grasp the term “do no harm,” is providing anti-vaxxers such a safe haven in the confines of his office. Already on his facebook page, advice is being given that’s beyond reprehensible. “Get a medical exemption starting NEXT year. Understand your options.” All of this without a word on how to recognize if the person next to your unvaccinated vector is immunocompromised (hint: there isn’t) or how to care for your infant with rib-shattering whooping cough.
Ginsberg isn’t having it. “I wonder how much rogue physicians like Bob Sears, Dr. Oz, and Jay Gordon get paid to advertise the products they do and how much they charge to speak at events. I’ve never been paid by or accepted any gift from a vaccine manufacturer and nor would I,” he said. “You simply cannot bribe me to do something that I think might hurt one of my patients; I will not do it no matter the price. In fact, we lose money on giving vaccines to our patients. We do it because it’s the right thing to do.”
Diseases are Bad. Vaccinations are Good.
So where does this all leave you, parents? When an anti-vaccine doctor, who has never seen a ruptured smallpox pustule, isn’t sure what all the complications of measles are, and can’t tell you how to strap your child into a leg brace, imparts to you the wisdom that it’s okay not to vaccinate because those diseases are “rare?”
The paradox that’s escaped these monsters is that they’re rare because of vaccines.
Illnesses that crippled my parents’ generation are diminished to a quick jab in the arm and a SpongeBob bandaid.
Smallpox is gone because of vaccines.
Near your child for whom you worked so hard to get that fake medical exemption.
If the mandate went out to stop vaccinating today, and everyone used the same actions as the anti-vaxxers, within a few years all these diseases would come surging back with a vengeance. Diseases that anti-vaxxers refer to as “harmless childhood illnesses” will be joined with diphtheria and polio, and there will be a boom in two industries; leg braces and teensy tiny baby coffins.
Before that ever happens, when patients file into waiting rooms and voting booths, let it be remembered that many doctors and scientists are parents, too. They’re on the same side.
Yvette d’Entremont holds bachelor’s degrees in theatre and chemistry along with a master’s degree in forensic science. With a background working as an analytical chemist, she currently runs Science Babe full time. Her site has become a reliable mix of debunking pseudoscience with humor and science. She lives in southern California with her dog, Buddy. Follow her at fb.com/sciencebabe and scibabe.com.
Pic via AP