March 2nd, 2010
03:56 PM ET
By Miriam Falco
Even though more than 90 percent of parents believe that vaccinations are a good way to protect their children from disease, more than half of the parents also believe vaccines cause serious side effects, a new survey has found.
The belief that vaccines can cause serious harm troubles many experts.
"Nearly one in four parents has the erroneous belief that vaccines cause autism in healthy children," says Dr. Gary Freed, primary author of the study and a pediatrician and director of Pediatrics and Communicable Diseases in the Division of General Pediatrics at the University of Michigan Health System.
The notion that vaccines cause autism persists, which has strong roots in a now-discredited 1998 study by Dr. Andrew Wakefield. The study, which suggested that the measles vaccine caused gastrointestinal problems and that those GI problems led to autism, was retracted last month after Wakefield was found to have conducted the research in an unethical manner. There are also many parents who believe vaccines cause autism because their children’s symptoms appear at the same time they get a lot of childhood vaccinations.
One of the most visible parents is actress and author Jenny McCarthy, who tells TIME magazine that while she doesn’t believe all vaccines are bad, she swears her son Evan will never get vaccinated again.
Freed cautions: “There's a real danger that some of the people the media turn to for scientific information are celebrities.”
Dr. Meg Fisher, a spokeswoman for the American Academy of Pediatrics, which published the study, says she's not surprised that so many parents worry about side effects from vaccines. "It's something pediatricians have been noticing over the past several years," says Fisher, who chairs the Department of Pediatrics at the Children's Hospital at Monmouth Medical Center in Long Branch, New Jersey. She says she's not surprised that so many parents worry about side effects from vaccines. "It's something pediatricians have been noticing over the past several years.” "The fact that a quarter of parents still believe vaccines cause autism is obviously of great concern." She says "people are still not getting the message that science shows there's no basis for these concerns.
Dr. Max Wiznitzer, a pediatric neurologist at Rainbow Babies & Children's Hospital in Cleveland, Ohio, says "the medical community needs to be proactive in getting accurate information to the public because in today's day in age anybody can say something – the accuracy has to be determined before we draw any conclusions.”
He tells parents “Don't believe a word I say. Here are the resources – you have to be educated." He says parents need to be directed to reliable resources and when they are, they come back and they tell him he is right about getting their child vaccinated.
Fisher also believes pediatricians need to take the time and address the concerns of parents and point them to more reliable sources of information. "For me that would be the AAP Web site (www.aap.org) – the immunization Web site [on the APP site] and the CDC Web site (www.cdc.gov),” Fisher says.
The survey also found that 11.5 percent refused at least one of the vaccines recommended for their child. Those who refused at least one vaccine for child appeared more concerned about newer vaccines, particularly vaccines that prevent HPV (the FDA approved Gardasil in 2006 and Cervarix in 2009).
Women were more likely to think that vaccines cause serious side effects and specifically that vaccines cause autism, according to the study, published Monday in the journal Pediatrics.
Freed says parents want to do the right thing for their children, but some don't understand the diseases that vaccines can prevent can kill or permanently damage their children.
"I took care of a child that died of measles and that was a horrible and tragic thing to have happen. It was a tragedy for the child and it was a tragedy for the parents because it was a totally preventable death."
Wiznitzer points out that just a last week, a college student at Ohio University died from meningitis. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, college students living in dormitories are among the high-risk groups who should get vaccinated for meningitis because bacterial meningitis can spread very quickly, especially among those living in close quarters.
Dr. William Schaffner, the chairman of Preventive Medicine and the Division of Infectious Diseases at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine and a liaison member of the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP), which advises the CDC on vaccines, says that some parents don't realize that it's not just about their child. Some children can't get vaccinated because they are too young or too frail because of illnesses such as cancer. The only way to protect those who can't be protected is by vaccinating those children who can be, so they don't infect the others.
Freed's study concludes that parents need to understand the true danger from the diseases the vaccines are designed to prevent and that pediatricians need to do a better job of explaining them.
Schaffner would take it one step further. He wants children in middle and high school to learn about the importance of vaccines and what they can do, so that when they become young parents will be more educated. "Unless you teach about those things, those young parents will continue to have questions." Schaffner concedes it’s a long-term project, but "something I want to work on."
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