Dr. Molly’s Weblog

Molly O’Shea starts a revolution in pediatric care

Another blow to the vaccines cause autism argument February 23, 2009

Filed under: Uncategorized — Dr Molly OShea @ 11:27 pm

A special federal court on Thursday ruled against parents who claimed childhood vaccines had caused their children to develop autism. The “vaccine court” examined the evidence presented and concluded, “It was abundantly clear that the petitioners’ theories of causation were speculative and unpersuasive.”

Many families are confused with all of the information available on all ends of the spectrum. There are the Jenny McCarthys of the world who are convinced vaccines caused their child’s autism and will hear nothing else while others like Dr. Paul Offit are convinced vaccines have absolutely no effect on development or autism. Doctors like Bob Sears have written books describing “alternate schedules” that still provide for complete vaccination but at a slower pace. Web sites and organizations like Defeat Autism Now! contend that everything from diet to mercury to vaccines cause or contribute to autism. What is a parent to believe?

When I talk with parents about vaccines and their safety, I can see the tension and worry. There would be nothing more painful than knowing you caused your child harm. Because the popular culture wisdom is heavy in the camp that vaccines are potentially harmful it makes it even more difficult for parents to have confidence choosing to vaccinate their child.

Parents want only to help their children. Parents understand that sometimes doing what is right or best can be painful, for example, removing a bandage quickly, but if parents hear that removing bandages quickly can cause permanent tissue damage, even if it may not be true, they will think twice about doing it.

It is this dilemma that drives parents to question the safety of vaccines. We all can agree that vaccines are effective (they do prevent the diseases they are designed to prevent) but what is in question, in the media at least, is their safety.

What is even more distressing is that the article that put the association between the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine and autism on the map is tainted. What has only recently come to light is that Dr. Andrew Wakefield apparently falsified much of the data. All but the original author recanted authorship when they became aware of Wakefield’s bias in data collection. The Times of London reports that although Wakefield reported data that the symptoms of autism appeared very soon after the vaccine was given, the actual data is different. This is very concerning and may result in disciplinary action.

So why are so many parents still reluctant to vaccinate? The reason is complex but boils down to these things: a feeling that the science is biased and tainted by the pharmaceutical industry, the fact that an alternate explanation for the cause of autism is yet to be found and the fear of doing harm to their child. In reality, the risk of contracting a disease that vaccines prevent is increasing while the supposed risk of vaccinating is decreasing.

When I counsel parents who are considering delaying vaccines or not vaccinating at all, I discuss the science we have and the possible risks of contracting the illnesses the vaccines prevent. Some of these illnesses are more common than others and as a result my advice varies. For example, if a family is reluctant to vaccinate, I explain that since August, I have seen six cases of whooping cough (pertussis, the P portion of the DTaP) but polio is no longer seen in the United States, so although I still recommend following the routine schedule, if a family is going to opt to delay a vaccine, polio is the one.

Lots of doctors feel strongly that the science is so clear vaccines are safe that any parent who is opting not to vaccinate or to vaccinate on a different schedule is putting their child at such great risk they cannot continue to be the child’s doctor. I disagree. Although I, too, believe vaccines are safe and effective, I also understand the decision is that of the parents. My job is to provide the best data as we know it and in doing so, hope to have as many children vaccinated as possible.

My experience is that most parents want to vaccinate their child and feel safe and comfortable doing so. By hearing and addressing parents’ concerns, the chances of at least partial vaccination is more likely than taking a hard line, all-or-none approach.

Know the facts, talk to your doctor, and love your kids and each day will be your best!

Molly O’Shea, MD  Birmingham Pediatrics + Wellness Center



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