Tom and Patsy Morris wanted what was best for their son, Nikolas, who was facing a battery of critical immunizations. Like most parents, the Morrises relied on information from the Web to assess risks associated with vaccinating children. After being alarmed by Internet statements and news accounts like those based on Andrew Wakefield’s false claim that vaccines cause autism, they decided against completing Nikolas’ pertussis vaccination. A year later, he nearly died from whooping cough.
Nikolas survived, but many children are not so lucky. Millions of Americans each year are victims of a misinformation campaign I call “tabloid medicine.” Mr. Wakefield is discredited, but his approach, enabled by uncertainty and the media’s willingness to believe conspiracy theories, lives on. The Internet - the wellspring of Mr. Wakefield’s influence - brims with medical myths fueled by inflammatory blogs, websites and “expert” resources.
In recent years, Congress, the Obama administration and even the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) - the group of experts charged with making far-reaching recommendations about what vaccinations America’s children should receive - have let tabloid medicine, instead of medical science, shape policy. In 2011, a new Congress can reverse that course.
In 1998, Mr. Wakefield made the unproven claim that the vaccine for measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) inflamed the digestive systems of children and let neurotoxins attack the brain. Immediately, panic spread through Europe and the United States. Vaccine rates declined.
In 1999, other anti-vaccine groups suggested that the “neurotoxin” in vaccines was a trace amount of thimerosal, used since the 1930s to prevent contamination and bacteria in many medical products. The media spread fear, and Congress held hearings, with Mr. Wakefield as star witness calling for thimerosal’s removal from all vaccines.
ACIP wanted to respond to the panic by insisting that thimerosal was safe. But one ACIP member sided with the activists. When the other members of ACIP balked because there was no science supporting his position, the lone holdout threatened to run to the media and trial lawyers. Ultimately, the full ACIP committee caved.
Removing thimerosal from vaccines was intended to calm fears, but it only led to more concern and less immunization. A spate of websites, hearings, media accounts and lawsuits reinforced the unfounded belief that scientists and doctors - in cahoots with drug companies - were hiding other dangers from the public.
Our children have been endangered by this hijacking of science. In 2007, 85 percent of doctors reported that a parent had refused one or more vaccine shots for his or her children in the past year, and 55 percent said that at least one parent had refused to vaccinate his or her child at all. African nations are immunizing and protecting more children from measles, mumps and the whooping cough. Yet these diseases are coming back in some of the wealthiest parts of America.
As the British Medical Journal observed: “The damage to public health continues, fueled by unbalanced media reporting and an ineffective response from government, researchers, journals and the medical profession.”
Initially, it seemed ACIP would seek to repair that damage when in 2000 it identified the elimination of meningitis in infants as a public health goal. Meningococcal disease is among the leading causes of preventable infant death in the United States. Infants are 10 to 15 times more likely to contract meningitis. Approximately one in 10 infants who get the disease die. More than 20 percent of survivors suffer from amputation of arms, legs, fingers and toes; blindness; deafness; brain damage; and cerebral palsy.
As recently as 2008, the CDC appeared supportive of a meningitis vaccine being developed for children younger than 2. That year, ACIP reported that vaccines in trials were “safe and immunogenic” and had “the potential to greatly reduce” the disease burden.
Yet last year, ACIP’s Meningococcal Working Group seemed to reverse itself, without warning. The group indicated it was considering not adding meningococcal vaccines to other shots infants receive. Among the reasons cited: the potential for a rare adverse event. Invoking such fears would give ACIP a reason to say a meningitis vaccine is not cost-effective given the “potential for risk” - as if saving the lives of 40,000 children over the next decade is risky.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is expected to approve the meningococcal vaccine later this year. If ACIP then vetoes the vaccine, it would be the first time the committee has refused to recommend a safe, proven FDA-approved vaccine.
Americans and Congress have a right to know if ACIP and President Obama’s new health care law are part of the problem or part of the healing. Are public health decisions going to be made based on tabloid medicine or medical science? Congress can and should begin by asking ACIP and the Obama administration whether they will perpetuate or end Mr. Wakefield’s lethal legacy.
Dr. Robert M. Goldberg is vice president of the Center for Medicine in the Public Interest and author of “Tabloid Medicine: How the Internet Is Being Used to Hijack Medical Science for Fear and Profit” (Kaplan, 2010).