October 4, 2013

The persistence of myth

Once again, a study has confirmed that there are significantly more risks associated with not vaccinating children than there are with vaccinating them. The study — published on September 30 in Pediatrics — looked at rates of pertussis (whooping cough) in California, and compared them to rates in areas where parents withheld vaccines from their children. The findings? People who weren’t vaccinated were 2½ times more likely than the norm to live in an area with high levels of whooping cough.

Why is this important? Because as the study states in its background, “In 2010, 9120 cases of pertussis were reported in California, more than any year since 1947.” How could this happen in the United States in the 21st century? Why would parents withhold one of the most effective preventers of communicable diseases in the world?

Much of the controversy swirls around the belief that vaccines cause or increase the likelihood of autism. And one of the watershed events was the publication in the UK medical journal The Lancet of an article by Andrew Wakefield that pointed the finger at the Measles, Mumps, Rubella (MMR) vaccine. But the article was completely retracted in 2010 after the London Sunday Times and the British General Medical Council uncovered Wakefield’s conflicts of interest and manipulation of evidence. An article in The Annals of Pharmacotherapy, “The Vaccine-Autism Connection: A Public Health Crisis Caused by Unethical Medical Practices and Fraudulent Science,” stated, “The alleged autism-vaccine connection is, perhaps, the most damaging medical hoax of the last 100 years.”

But the myth lives on, despite numerous studies, like this one from August of 2013 in The Journal of Pediatrics, that continue to examine — and reject — possible connections between vaccines and autism, including the “too-many-vaccines-cause-autism” argument.

What’s the answer? One clue may be to use the channels that have so successfully spread the myth.  One avenue is the spokesperson. Jenny McCarthy has been historically linked to the vaccines-cause-autism argument. Maybe public health advocates need a spokesperson to spread the facts from the scientific studies that debunk that view. But who has the credentials and public recognition to make a meaningful impact?

Another route is social media, which has been used successfully to question the value of vaccines. But this article in FierceVaccines also notes that “pro-vaccine posts are seen as being pushy,” so they need to be handled delicately.

It’s a complicated issue and a communications conundrum, with real public health repercussions.