Commentary & Opinion
12:45 pm
Thu December 19, 2013

Sean Philpott: Manufacturing Controversy About Vaccines

Last week, I got into an argument with a friend of mine about the flu vaccine. He felt that the vaccine was unnecessary and unsafe. In fact, he claimed, every time he'd been vaccinated, he came down with the flu.

Of course, everything he said or claimed in our discussion about whether or not people should be vaccinated against the flu was wrong. But this highly educated man is convinced that vaccines pose a serious threat to the health and wellbeing of most Americans.

He's not alone. Recent surveys suggest that over 40% of Americans believe that vaccines are unsafe. I'm not just talking about the flu vaccine. People are increasingly skeptical about the value and safety of all vaccines, including those that prevent such dangerous diseases as measles, whooping cough and polio.

Rates of vaccination in this country have decreased steadily over the last decade, particularly in more affluent and progressive communities. As a result, we are beginning to see a resurgence of otherwise preventable infectious diseases. For example, the US is experiencing the worst whooping cough epidemic in over 70 years.

Caused by a bacterium known as Bordetella pertussis, this disease is highly contagious and extremely dangerous, particularly for children. Over half of infants who catch the disease will require hospitalization. Some of these children will die.

Prior to the development of an effective vaccine to prevent whooping cough, nearly a quarter of a million Americans died from this disease annually. By the mid-1970s, however, the disease was largely eliminated in the US. Only a thousand cases of whooping cough occurred in 1976. Compare this with 2012, when nearly 50,000 cases were reported. Outbreaks were particularly common in Washington and Wisconsin, states that have some of the lowest rates of childhood vaccination.

All of this -- declining vaccination rates, increasing skepticism about vaccine safety and effectiveness, and otherwise preventable outbreaks of dangerous infectious diseases -- is the result of a militant anti-vaccination movement lead by celebrity 'experts' like former Playboy Playmate Jenny McCarthy.

The anti-vaccination movement is based on faulty science and fabricated research. The oft-cited claim that vaccines cause autism, for example, comes from a single now-discredited study by the fraudulent Dr. Andrew Wakefield. Despite this, the anti-vaccinationists increasingly have the support of the mainstream media.

For instance, Ms. McCarthy is the new co-host of the popular TV show "The View," giving her a national platform to espouse her anti-vaccination opinions. Worse yet, veteran newswoman Katie Couric recently ran a segment on her talk show that questioned the safety and effectiveness of Gardasil and Cervarix, two vaccines that prevents the spread the most common strains of human papilloma virus (HPV). The alarmist promo for that show: "The HPV vaccine is considered a life-saving cancer preventer, but is it a potentially deadly dose for girls?"

Katie and her producers, it seems, were more than willing to pander to fear-mongering anti-vaccinationists in exchange for ratings. The show's guests included several women who made wild and unsubstantiated claims about vaccine safety and post-vaccination side effects. Known anti-vaccinationist Dr. Diane Harper also appeared on the show, questioning Gardasil's effectiveness. Only one guest, Dr. Mallika Marshall, represented the pro-vaccination side. She was given but a few moments on the air, not nearly enough time to challenge the claims of the other guests. It was not exactly a 'fair and balanced' news segment.

Ms. Couric has since apologized, admitting in a Huffington Post blog that "criticisms that the program was too anti-vaccine and anti-science [were] valid." Unfortunately, the damage is done and Katie's apology, while seemingly heartfelt, did little to correct the myths perpetuated by the anti-vaccinationists who appeared on the show.

But we have a bigger problem. By even airing segments such as this, the mainstream media is actively promoting the idea that vaccines are neither safe nor effective. They are manufacturing controversy and debate where none exists.

The vast majority of studies show that vaccines are extremely safe and protect against a variety of dangerous diseases like whooping cough, influenza and cervical cancer. There is no uncertainty about the value of vaccines, at least not within the scientific and medical community. The benefits of vaccination clearly outweigh the risks. That's the news story the networks should be promoting, rather than giving anti-vaccination alarmists the opportunity to continue their campaign of misinformation and misdirection.

A public health researcher and ethicist by training, Dr. Sean Philpott is Director of Research Ethics for the Bioethics program at Union Graduate College-Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in Schenectady, New York.  He is also Acting Director of Union Graduate College's Center for Bioethics and Clinical Leadership, and Project Director of its Advanced Certificate Program for Research Ethics in Central and Eastern Europe.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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