Paul Offit is one of the nation’s leading experts on the benefits of vaccines and the dangers of the campaign against vaccines. He is the author of multiple books on both the benefits of vaccines and the anti-vaccine movement, including Deadly Choices: How the Anti-Vaccine Movement Threatens Us All and Autism’s False Prophets: Bad Science, Risky Medicine, and the Search for a Cure. He joins Bundoo to talk about the state of the modern anti-vaccine movement and why parents need to be on guard against bad information and charismatic false prophets.
Dr. Sara Connolly: Vaccine rates have fallen in the past decade or so. Why do you think parents aren’t vaccinating?
Dr. Paul Offit: The principal job of a parent is to put a child in the safest position possible, and vaccines do that. But I think parents are less compelled by the idea that these diseases are out there than they used to be. In a way, vaccines are victims of their own success. But now we’re starting to see more outbreaks of measles and whooping cough, which causes more fear of the diseases. You’d like to think we’d learn from history but we don’t, so we’re doomed to repeat it.
We’ve talked about this in my office. The other side is using fear of vaccines, so is it right for doctors to fight fear with fear? Do we resort to scary posters of diseases to convince the parents who kind of want to do it but are scared?
I have fewer problems with those kinds of parents, who’ve read the press clippings and are scared. What bothers me are the people who come in and say, “Don’t confuse me with the facts.” I think this can be challenging for young pediatricians especially. Young pediatricians are trained to accept all frames of mind, but I think pediatricians need to make it clear that the choice not to vaccinate is not a risk-free choice. There are different risks with not vaccinating, and we should be showing parents what those risks look like, what measles or whooping cough look like. The odds are their kids won’t get those diseases, but they might. No parent wants to end up in an advocacy group for kids who got the disease.
What about vaccine splitting or using an altered schedule to slow them down?
That’s the Sophie’s choice of vaccines. Pick your poison. Which disease do you want your child to be at risk for longer? The current schedule is a well-tested schedule. If you want to make up a schedule, you’re using an untested schedule. There is no alternative vaccine schedule. The notion that children can’t handle five vaccines at once is a false one. Although we have 14 vaccines today, there are fewer immunological components in those vaccines than in a single smallpox vaccine from 100 years ago. The idea that vaccines can overwhelm the system is fanciful. Every day, our kids are exposed to trillions of bacteria. Vaccines are literally a drop in the ocean. There are also studies that have looked at the stress levels of having fewer shots at once. They measure this by measuring cortisol levels. What they found is that you aren’t more stressed out by more shots. You’re maximally stressed at one shot. So if you split up the schedule, you’re actually exposing your kid to more stress and increasing the risk of needle phobia.
So for parents who are worried, what resources do you recommend? If doctors are viewed as “the establishment,” what non-establishment sources can we recommend?
I don’t buy that premise. The idea that the American Academy of Pediatrics or Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is biased is a false one. These organizations are dedicated to children’s health. Their only bias is that they all care about children. But we can recommend the Immunization Action Coalition or the Institute for Vaccine Safety.