March 2nd, 2010
03:56 PM ET

Most vaccinate but many worry

By Miriam Falco
CNN Medical Managing Editor

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which suggested that the measles vaccine caused gastrointestinal problems and that those GI problems led to autism, was retracted last month after Wakefield was found to have conducted the research in an unethical manner.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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soundoff (60 Responses)
  1. Margo

    There have been hundreds of studies that have disproven the autism/vaccine link. But it doesn't matter, because the fear has struck, and most people can't hear reason then. You can't prove a negative – -that doesn't make sense. There is definitiely something going on with autism, but the fear of it shouldn't take away one of the most effective advances in public health, especially when many, many people, who have no incentive to say differently, say that it isn't the vaccines.

    How many people have to stand up and say "I vaccinated my children on schedule and NOTHING happened" for it to be believed?

    March 9, 2010 at 20:57 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. Hermotimus

    Most Americans are too young to remember the effects of infectious disease on children in our past. As a child in the 1940s and early 1950's I can clearly remember the summer floods of kids coming down with polio and being crippled for life. The bouts of pox that would leave a child's face scared for years afterwards. The kids who would be in class one day and next week we would be told by the teacher that they had died due to some infectious disease for which we now have a vacine!. I can remember my fifth grade class, where I had three children in class with me wearing braces for the rest of their lives because of polio and of one girl in particular whose face looked like a close up picture of the moon's surface due to pox. The times when the whole school would be closed due to a measles outbreak in the city. Such outbreaks of infectious disease were common and the main way to prevent their spread was to close the schools before the disease started to spread among the children. In this day and age, for a child to come down with polio or any one of a number of diseases that has a vacine for it, I believe the parent who failed to have their child immumized should face criminal charges of child neglect and abuse. You may all be too young to remember what infectious diseases used to do to the children of this country. But a quick look around the internet at history will give a cruel lesson in how bad things could become again if parents refuse to vacinate their children. Even if we were to lose 1 child out of 10,000 due to side effects (the number is far less than that now), it would be far better than losing hundreds to the direct effects of these contagious diseases!

    June 28, 2010 at 09:43 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Ann

    I know quite a few parents who are not vaccinating and none of them are basing it on some celebrities belief. All of these families have read many books on vaccinations, both pro and con, and many of the books that oppose vaccinations and/or suggest alternative vaccinations are also written by medical experts, renowned scientists, and pediatricians. It is an insult to parents for these experts quoted in the articles to continue to portray these parents as uneducated and following a non-expert. All of these families are highly educated and have read more literature on this subject, in many cases, than their local doctors have time to read.

    June 28, 2010 at 13:12 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. HC

    I think both sides of this debate are talking and talking without acknowledging the legitimate concerns of the other. I'm a medical professional with a PhD, my husband is a Medical Doctor. We chose to vaccinate on a delayed schedule primarily because we wanted to space out the number of shots received at each visit. The CDC/AAP schedule is complex and most providers balk at having to customize it (it does require effort to make sure the shots get spaced appropriately), and we also had to pay out of pocket for each injection visit since they did not correspond with well visits. In the end, it was worth it to us, since we were not able to find any studies that have examined the safety of multiple injections in infants, and our physician was not able to either. Most clinical trials only study the effect of one vaccine in isolation of all others, but this is not how vaccines are given in practice.

    Our son is 2 and has now had all the recommended vaccines, which is what we wanted all along but on a schedule that we were comfortable with. We plan to do the same with future kids as well. Our doctors have been great at accommodating us, but I do think this is partially because they know our backgrounds and know that we are well-informed. However, some practices and physicians will bully parents or refuse to accept the kids as patients if they do not follow the schedule, which I think is a shame.

    June 28, 2010 at 16:24 | Report abuse | Reply
    • RMC

      HC, Thank you for your insightful comment. It is nice to hear another medical professional be a little more thoughtful in regard to the immunization schedule. I am an NP and to say anything anti-vaccine is very taboo in my profession. I also had my first son vaccinated on a slower schedule much to the dismay of his pediatrician. He still has not recieved the Hep A vaccine. I don't fear this vaccine at all, what I don't understand is WHY we give it to healthy children. It is a fairly new addition to the vaccine schedule and from my understanding children do not get that sick from Hep A. I voiced this to the pediatrician and she told me it is to protect the elderly and others who are at risk from Hep A. I already knew this, so my question really is "is it ethical to vaccinate children for disease that doesn't really make them very sick to protect adults who can make the decision to vaccinate and protect themselves?" I am interested in your thoughts on this. I can not be the only medical professional beginning to question whether or not we should vaccinate just because we can. Are we starting to cross the line when we use children to protect adults who in theory can make an informed decision for themselves?

      June 28, 2010 at 18:41 | Report abuse |
  5. Jen

    Good article! Correct on all points! My son will get his vaccinations on time as recommended. There is always a chance of serious side effects, but statistically these are negligible compared to the very real chance of complications from the diseases vaccines prevent.

    An educated mother (with a Ph.D. in pharmacology)

    July 8, 2010 at 14:26 | Report abuse | Reply
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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.