Opting out of vaccines

April 18th, 2014 (last updated)

ABC News’ Dr. Richard Besser and The New Yorker’s Michael Specter on the public health risks of skipping childhood vaccines.

ABC News

Dear parents, you are being lied to.

April 17th, 2014 (last updated)


Dear parents,

You are being lied to. The people who claim to be acting in the best interests of your children are putting their health and even lives at risk.

They say that measles isn’t a deadly disease.
But it is.

They say that chickenpox isn’t that big of a deal.
But it can be.

They say that the flu isn’t dangerous.
But it is.

They say that whooping cough isn’t so bad for kids to get.
But it is.

They say that vaccines aren’t that effective at preventing disease.
But 3 million children’s lives are saved every year by vaccination, and 2 million die every year from vaccine-preventable illnesses.

They say that “natural infection” is better than vaccination.
But they’re wrong.


Measles at a rock concert goes viral in a bad way

April 16th, 2014 (last updated)

If you went to see the Kings of Leon concert on March 28 in Seattle, let’s hope you came home with nothing but great memories.

Kings of Leon

A young woman at that concert in Seattle has come down with measles, which can be spread for days by a person who’s infected but not yet sick. That’s bad news for the thousands of people who shared the concert hall with her, or were at the many other places she went that week.

And that’s why the Washington State Department of Health has published the unidentified woman’s schedule online.

“The reason we’re doing this is that it’s so highly contagious,” says Dr. Jeffrey Duchin, who is chief of communicable disease control for Seattle and King County Public Health, which investigated the measles case. “It can stay in the air for hours after the contagious person has left. If we don’t treat these people, the chain of transmission can continue.”

The young woman became contagious on March 26, after visiting a family with measles cases that were linked to an outbreak in British Columbia. Unaware she was infected, she went to work at a bakery, filled her car up at a gas station, went to the concert, went to Pike Place Market and went out for sushi. All the while she was spreading viruses in the air.

So if you were at the Starbucks at 102 Pike Street between 11:15 a.m. and 2 p.m. on March 29 and you’re not sure if you’re immune to measles, the Washington State Department of Health wants you to see a health care professional immediately. You may be in the market for a quick shot of vaccine or immune globulin.

Most people are protected against measles, Duchin notes, either through vaccination or because they had the disease as a child. But a surprising number of people aren’t sure about their status. And others, including babies, pregnant women or people with suppressed immunity, can’t be vaccinated. They’re the ones who are at risk when measles reappears. And the disease can kill.

“We continually see measles being reintroduced into our community by travelers,” Duchin told Shots. “It’s always good to know your measles immune status and be up to date.”

This story isn’t over. It takes one week to 17 days after exposure to become ill, so people who were at the Key Arena for that concert might still get sick this week.

That’s probably not what Kings of Leon mean when they sing of being “hot as a fever / rattling bones.” And let’s hope that remains poetic license, not part of a medical diagnosis.


Ontario mother says anti-vaccination parents put her son at risk

April 15th, 2014 (last updated)

Recent measles outbreaks in several different Canadian provinces have two Ontario parents concerned for their son, who couldn’t get the measles vaccination due to a health condition.

Mallory Olsheski’s son, Riley, had a heart transplant in 2012 when he was just five months old. Because the transplant left Riley’s immune system in such a fragile state, he wasn’t able to get the measles vaccination, she said.

She said that the measles outbreaks across the country, including four cases in the Ottawa region where she lives, pose an increased risk to her son.

“Exposure to measles and contracting the measles can be deadly for him,” she told CTV’s Canada AM. “So it’s very scary to think that he’s at such risk for something that was originally eradicated in this country.”

Since the start of 2014, there have been measles outbreaks in Western Canada, the Prairies and Ontario, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada. The agency issued a warning last week that there have been a higher-than-usual number of confirmed cases since the start of the year.

Last week, Ontario public health officials confirmed that there have been 11 cases in the province, all of which are directly or indirectly related to travel overseas.

And in British Columbia, public health officials are contending with an outbreak of about 320 cases in the Fraser Valley East region.

The B.C. outbreak is believed to have first occurred in a Christian elementary school in Chilliwack. Parts of the region have low vaccination rates, with some community members choosing not to vaccinate their children for religious reasons. Last week, the provincial ministry of health said the outbreak had been largely contained.

Olsheski said she “takes issue” with people who don’t vaccinate their children due to non-medical reasons.

“I believe that these people need to be educated and informed, they should ask questions,” she said. “They should take time to speak to physicians and health units.”

Measles is a highly contagious infectious disease that can have serious side effects including diarrhea, fever, pneumonia, infections of the brain and even death. Symptoms of measles begin to appear after seven to 18 days after infection, and can include fever, drowsiness, red eyes and the development of a blotchy rash. Public health agencies across the country stress that immunization is the best protection against the measles.

Olsheski said that since learning of the outbreaks, she’s changed her son’s daily routine, especially given all the time he spends in health clinics.

“He’s got many appointments and these are at medical facilities… and there are always a lot of children around,” she said.

“So these children and people are walking around looking healthy on the outside, and on the inside they (may be) brewing this deadly disease. And they’re in contact with my child and children like him. It’s dangerous.”

She said the family now stays home more often, which has been hard on her two-year-old son.

“We don’t take him out often and it’s sad for him because he’s very social. He loves to move around and run around and be busy. So it’s limiting for him,” she said

Mallory Olsheski

CTV Canada

Say something

April 14th, 2014 (last updated)

I can still see myself now standing in front of the closet with a baby in my arms. There was a blue dress with yellow flowers, perfect for my little girl hanging there. There were three crisp white shirts for my sons and three matching argyle vests, blue triangles, green triangles, perfect for Easter.

Even though I knew it would only make me feel worse, I couldn’t help myself. I gave the smallest shirt a tug to release it from the hanger. My hands worked quickly as I looped the tiny buttons through the holes and struggled to hold my squirming baby still enough. Quickly, I pushed the vest over his head and threaded his arms through the little armholes. It looked darling. Just like I knew it would.

Unfortunately, aside from the picture I snapped for Grandma, I knew no one would ever see my son in that Easter outfit. I simply could not risk bringing him to church—even for Easter.

You see, my five-month-old was recovering from a viral infection that attacked his central nervous system at three months old. He was doing better—working hard to regain the motor milestones and coordination that the virus stole from him. But there was a problem, a big one. Because my son had experienced an episode of swelling in his brain, his doctor needed more information to determine if he was a good candidate for vaccines, and he had come away from his four-month checkup without receiving any vaccinations.

That Easter, there were some bitter thoughts hanging in my mind while those clothes hung in the closet. In a better world, I thought, my son would still have been protected. In a better world, those around him would have been vaccinated, and unlikely to put him in danger. In a better world, I would have been able to take my son to church on Easter Sunday, not only so everyone could see his adorable new outfit, but so that they could share in my joy that he was still alive.

In other words, in a better world, herd immunity would have offered my son all the protection he needed. But in my world, this was not possible. There had been a death attributed to whooping cough in my area, and I was forced to stay home. I could not risk it. My son was unlikely to fight off another terrible infection.

Because I found myself isolated inside, I was spending more time online. Here, I found out a frustrating fact. There were a few friends of mine who frequently posted their favorite anti-vax articles to Facebook. Before my son’s illness, I had simply dismissed their views as weird or misguided. After my son’s illness, and especially after the Easter I spent at home worrying, the misinformation they passed off as “fact” left me awake at night fuming. How could they possibly be so callous? They knew what our family had been through. It had been very public! Weren’t they worried about my baby more than supposed “toxins” present in vaccines? Didn’t they know how afraid I was that their children or children like them would infect my son?

Deep down I knew the answer. No, they didn’t know. In all our conversations online or otherwise, I had never told them. I didn’t want to cause controversy. I didn’t want to damage our friendship. I didn’t want to be “that person” who was always bothering everyone by being passionate about her beliefs. I hated Facebook arguments and didn’t want to start one. I was afraid. I didn’t say anything.

Then, a different kind of article showed up in my newsfeed. It was about a couple in New Zealand whose son hadn’t been vaccinated and, consequently, he had contracted tetanus. Instead of treating the illness and quietly vaccinating, the couple had gone public with the story, risking the ridicule and criticism they would receive because they wanted to protect other children from suffering. As a mother who had also watched by the bedside as her child’s body had been ravaged by illness, I was deeply moved. It was a big moment for me, and I decided to hit the share button.

Almost immediately, one of my more vocal friends posted a long comment explaining what the couple had done wrong and reaffirming her anti-vax position. I could also see in my feed that she had turned to her anti-vax friends for help in what to say to me. The next day she posted that she had written a guest post on a blog somewhere in response to the article I had posted.

Actually, this response news strengthened my resolve. One way I had justified my silence was by saying I was “just a mom.” Although I had a college education, I was not a scientist or a doctor. Surely, I had thought, there was someone more qualified to say something. But I also knew this woman; she wasn’t a scientist or a doctor either, and now she was giving out medical advice! I challenged her on her own post and then made a point to do it again. I challenged a few other articles posted by others and posted articles or blog posts supporting vaccination to my own feed. Sometimes it got a little hairy, but it was actually better than the fretting helpless feeling silence had caused me.

Even though I still fear offending those I genuinely care about—they are my friends, after all—I have learned there are always others reading my comments. I usually get a lot of “likes” from people I don’t know, people who may have been waiting for someone “more qualified” to take on the issue.

But I know there are others reading who are confused by the scary claims made by adamant anti-vaxxers, and I’ve learned those people are the most important—even though they rarely leave comments or “like” things. I want the silent readers to know the truth—or at least to know that Facebook is not where to find it. When I feel the conversation isn’t productive anymore, I always leave the offer that anyone reading can add me as a friend and ask me about my story. And here’s the cool thing: people have!

To my knowledge, I have never swayed any of my passionate friends to give up their views on vaccines (although I do hope I’ve planted a kernel of doubt). I’m not sure if that was ever the goal, however. If I am being honest, I have seen the biggest change in myself. I am no longer the woman who sat at home Easter Sunday wishing my world were a better world. I am saying something to make it a better, safer world. But I can’t do it alone.

If any of you out there are fretting and wishing, you need to say something too. Explain how scientific study works and that vaccines have been thoroughly studied. Explain that you trust your doctor. Explain that your son/daughter/niece/nephew/third cousin cannot be vaccinated and depends on the rest of us. I know you’re scared you’re friends will hate you. I know you’re “just” a parent. I know you probably don’t have a sick baby to defend, but sick children are out there in your community. Protect them. Stand up for them.

Say something.

Denise Olson

Denise Olson is “just a mom” living in Arizona. She stays home with her four children, ages seven, five, four, and two. She is happy to report that the two-year-old is now fully vaccinated.

Voices for Vaccines

How important are vaccines?

April 13th, 2014 (last updated)

how import are vaccines

Texas Children’s Hospital

The persistence of a myth does not make it true

April 12th, 2014 (last updated)

vaccines do not cause autism

Voices for Vaccines

Vaccination ‘indifference is leading to outbreaks’

April 11th, 2014 (last updated)

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has made reducing the mortality rate of pregnant women, new mothers, their babies and children under 5 Canada’s international-development priority, committing $2.8-billion over five years to the initiative at the 2010 G8 summit in Muskoka. In May, he will host a high-level meeting on maternal and child health in Toronto to push for further action.

One of the keys to reducing mortality among mothers and babies is vaccination. Dr. Seth Berkley, CEO of the GAVI Alliance, was in Ottawa recently for preparatory talks related to the Toronto meeting. GAVI is a global public-private partnership committed to increasing access to immunization and reducing death from vaccine-preventable illness. Berkley spoke with The Globe and Mail about gains and losses on the immunization front.

Dr. Seth Berkley

There has been a lot of progress on child immunization since GAVI was founded in 2002. What is your biggest achievement?

We have much better coverage than in the past. The expansion of the number of vaccines is also important. We now have vaccines for the biggest killers of children: diarrhea, pneumonia, as well as vaccines against cervical cancer for adolescent girls, against rubella, meningitis. We are protecting a lot more children against a lot more diseases.

The numbers of lives saved is impressive.

We’ve immunized 440 million children since GAVI began and avoided more than six million deaths. Just as importantly, we’re now in an acceleration phase. In the next five years – once we replenish our funds – we will prevent another six million deaths. Thirteen years for the first six million, five years for the next six million.

We’ve just seen the elimination of polio in India. Does an achievement like that help your cause?

It helps extraordinarily. A few years ago India had the most polio cases in the world and cynics said elimination was impossible, that it would never happen. Well, India got its act together and did a remarkable job. What they’ve done is strengthen their system to reach children who could not be reached before. Now we’re taking people who worked on polio and getting them to do routine immunization.

The gains we’ve talked about are all in the developing world. In the developed world there’s a resurgence of vaccine-preventable illness. Is that frustrating?

It’s horrible. And there are two reasons for this. When something gets posted on the Internet that’s wrong – like the assertion by Andrew Wakefield that MMR vaccine causes autism – it’s still out there even though it’s been disproven and repudiated. The second reason is that we have a situation where many Canadians have never seen these diseases so it’s easy to say, ‘Well, it’s not that bad. It’s not going to happen here.’ This indifference is leading to outbreaks and we’re seeing them all over the world: in Canada, in Switzerland, in Russia, all over.

You visit parts of the world where mothers walk for days to get their children immunized and in Canada, where it’s easy, it seems [some people] can’t be bothered.

The difference is that in the places where they walk for days they’ve seen their children die. They know all too well how deadly these diseases are. Parents all over the world want to help their children. If Canadian women were living in a community where, God forbid, they would see the graves of small children who died of measles every morning, they too would be clamouring, they would be doing everything in their power to get vaccines. Here the problem is invisible.

The Canadian government is planning a high-level meeting on child and maternal health in May. What do you expect?

If I go on what has happened in the past, some positive action. At the G8, Stephen Harper’s Muskoka Initiative turned out to be a galvanizing moment. He put a stake in the ground about the importance of this issue, so I’m excited by the fact that he’s going to continue that discussion and remind people we’re not finished. I hope immunization will be a key part of the conversation.

The Globe and Mail

Dear anti-vaxxers: You want pure nature? OK, die young.

April 10th, 2014 (last updated)

Parents who oppose vaccines are not only misinformed, they’re spoiled, having grown up in a world that stands behind the berms built by the scientists and vaccine developers who came before them.

None of the New York parents who are refusing to vaccinate their children today were around the city in the summer of 1916, which is good for them and good for any of the kids they might have had. It was in that summer that 27,000 children nationwide were struck by a polio outbreak, 9,300 of them in New York. Of those 9,300 victims, 2,700 died. The Salk family at 116th St. and Madison Ave. escaped the scourge, meaning that their two-year-old son Jonas was spared. History notes that when he grew up, he had a little score-settling to do with the poliovirus.

That hard experience of a city and its people makes the sublime obtuseness, recklessness and flat-out numbskullery of some of today’s New York parents entirely indefensible. A deeply disturbing investigative piece in New York magazine reveals that fully 245 of the city’s private schools have vaccination rates that fall below the 95% level needed to ensure herd immunity — the protection that’s provided to the few unvaccinated members of a community because so many others are protected that a pathogen never gets a foothold. Of those schools, 127 fall below 90% and 37 fall below 70%. Nine schools fall in a dismal range of 18.4% to 41.5%. Numbers like that are the leading cause New York is suddenly suffering a measles outbreak, more than 50 years after the first vaccine against the disease was licensed.

The anti-vaxxers all cite the same imaginary problems to support their resistance: Vaccines are linked to autism (they’re not), they cause autoimmune diseases (they don’t), they are “messing with nature,” as one pediatrician in a Marin County, Calif. practice that indulges parents who don’t want to vaccinate their kids or want to administer the shots on their own schedule, told Mother Jones Magazine. Um, OK.

But here’s the thing the anti-vaxxers need to know, for the one billionth time: You’re wrong. Really, it’s that simple. You’re trafficking in junk science, in thoroughly debunked science, in the dizzy stuff of rumor mills and conspiracy theories. And about nature? “Messing with nature” is the whole point of medicine, given that it’s nature that cooked up every disease that ever existed. You want pure nature? OK, die young.



Researchers rush to develop Ebola virus vaccine

April 9th, 2014 (last updated)

Medical teams in Guinea are still trying to contain an outbreak of the deadly ebola virus. Out of 122 cases recorded there so far, at least 80 patients have died with a further four deaths in Liberia. There is no vaccine or cure for the disease but some are being tested. Al Jazeera’s Emma Hayward reports.

Al Jazeera English