Rock Doc: Take Your Best Shot

Feb 3, 2012

With a good six weeks of winter left, flu vaccines are still in demand. While many see the benefits of vaccines, others are less sure. Dr. E. Kirsten Peters, the Rock Doc, weighs in on the efficacy and safety of a prominent feature of life in the 21st century.

When I was a youngster in the 1960s I had all the shots little kids went through at the time. And because I’m a klutz and regularly hurt myself outdoors, I’ve periodically had my tetanus immunity updated. A few years ago I underwent a series of shots for rabies after having a scary adventure with an ill coyote. Last summer I got the shingles vaccine when my assistant was suffering from a shingles outbreak. And to round it all out, each year I get the influenza vaccine.

My long history of receiving vaccinations – even including the potent shots given for rabies – has not caused me more than temporary discomfort. I’m truly glad I live in a time and place where vaccines are available for many infectious illnesses.

But I also know that millions of American fear potential side-effects of vaccines more than they fear the diseases against which the shots can protect us.

In a recent NPR-Thomson Reuters Health Poll, some 21 percent of those interviewed said they believe that autism is linked to vaccines. And of people who say they’ve changed their views about vaccines in the last five years, most said their opinions are becoming less favorable. That’s apparently why the vaccination rate for measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) recently fell almost 3 percent.

Of course, nobody likes getting injections. But to believe that vaccinating children leads to autism is, at this point in history, to ignore the evidence.

The noise that sprang up around childhood vaccines mostly comes from a study by a British doctor, one Andrew Wakefield by name. In 1998 Dr. Wakefield published a paper based on the medical histories of 12 patients with respect to the MMR vaccine. Wakefield’s study led many parents to fear that the MMR shot increased the chance a young child would develop autism.

It’s true that the first signs of autism or other serious developmental issues often arise in young children right around the time they are receiving lots of vaccines from their pediatricians. This, of course, doesn’t mean the vaccines are causing the developmental problems. To put it another way, the fact that I first notice I’m coming down with a sore throat while I’m reading one evening doesn’t mean the act of reading is causing the sore throat.

Long after the initial study hit the streets, a careful reexamination of Wakefield’s work was done. It showed that of the 12 children in the study, three never actually had autism, and five showed signs of developmental problems before they got the vaccine. Further, doctors reviewing the study came to believe not that Wakefield had made honest mistakes in his study, but that he had deliberately falsified the data on which his published study rested. It also came to light that Wakefield was paid more than $670,000 by a law firm that planned to sue the vaccine manufacturers.

In short, Wakefield’s conduct was so destructive and misleading that British authorities stripped him of his medical license. But the damage lingers.

Wakefield's original paper led a number of parents to withhold the MMR vaccine from their kids. In Britain vaccination rates dropped significantly and, sure enough, the number of kids coming down with measles went up.

Children – and adults – are protected from an amazing array of infectious illness due to vaccines. But the fact that vaccines are so effective may be what blinds us to their value. That’s the way it looks to this Rock Head, and that’s why I roll up my sleeve for the shots my doctor recommends.