Imagine that.

After hundreds of news articles hyping the danger of the Measles vaccination causing autism, a lot of parents didn’t give their kids shots.

Usually they got away with it, thanks to something called “herd immunity”, which means if most people are immune, there are fewer contacts to give it to your own kid.

But now there is another measles epidemic, and even the NYTimes is willing to admit that it’s because parents wouldn’t vaccinate their children because of fear of “autism”. So now the kids will suffer a ten day illness with high fever and rash. If they are unlucky, they will get a secondary pneumonia or ear infection. One in a thousand will get a measles infection of the brain, measles encephalitis, one third of whom will suffer permanent brain damage.
I am a bit cynical about the “autism” debate, mainly because I suspect many of those now diagnosed as “autistic” in the past would have been diagnosed as “childhood schizophrenia” or mentally retarded with behavior problems from the retardation, and promptly sent to institutions to be cared for. A few would stay at home, but often kept in the back bedroom because of their severe behavior problems.

Back then, “autism” was a diagnosis limited to high functioning autistic children, and the cause was blamed on “bad parenting”, specifically “frigid mother”. Back then, all sorts of psychiatric illnesses were blamed on the parents. One of my (male) collegues had one of his children taken from him and put into foster care when the child was diagnosed as “childhood schizophrenia”…the child’s behavior would nowadays be diagnosed as autistic. The good news is nowadays autism is recognized as a spectrum of neurological disorders, rather than “psychiatric”, and parents are no longer blamed.

Nowadays, we have medications, and better training in local public schools so the children can stay in families where they can be loved and cared for, which is an improvement. But still in most cases doctors can’t point to “why” the children are autistic. But human nature is to blame something or someone. In tribal Africa, often an unpopular neighbor would be blamed for poisoning the child, or the child’s illness was blamed on the sins of the parents. In Europe and the US, human nature is no different: often parents emotionally blame each other, and the divorce rate after the diagnosis is huge. Many people decide God is to blame, and become atheists. Others sue the doctor or the vaccine maker.

And all doctors can do is to point that scientifically, there is no statistical proof that the vaccine is to blame.

Some of these children were born with problems, but even 50 years ago, there was a subset of children who developed a high fever and then started to regress mentally and behaviorally. Since the timing of the illness often was the same time children were getting their baby shots, parents started blaming the shots.  Doctors suspected these kids had a low grade encephalitis from a virus. But some of these illnesses began a few days after the kids got their DPT, and since the pertussis vaccine was known to cause high fever and screaming reactions and even a form of encephalitis in a small percentage of kids, some parents started to blame all such cases on the pertussis vaccine.

This got huge publicity at one point, and a lot of parents in the UK refused the vaccine after scare newspaper stories of 36 children “damaged” by the vaccine.

The impact of this controversy on immunisation uptake and disease outbreaks was staggering. By 1977, pertussis immunisation uptake was down from 77% to 33%, and some districts even recorded an uptake rate of just 9% (Swansea Research Unit, 1981). In terms of disease burden, at least four significant outbreaks of whooping cough occurred during the course of the vaccine scare. The first of these, in 1979, had 102,500 reported cases throughout the United Kingdom and an estimated 36 fatalities.

Not noted in the article: How many children developed intercranial bleeding (i.e.”strokes”) and brain damage from the severe coughing spells.

Since we now have changed to acellular pertussis vaccine, which does not cause fevers/neurological damage, the culprit has switched to either mercury in the vaccines, or MMR. Again, the mercury (a tiny amount used as a preservative) has been removed from vaccine, without any change in the rate of autism, so MMR remains the favorite vaccine to blame.

The problem with all of this is that news reports, especially sensationalizing parent’s claims in the news, tends to “trickle down”, and become lethal when misinterpreted by semi literate “experts” in third world countries.

So reports that early Polio vaccine was contaminated with a monkey virus quickly morphed into polio vaccine caused HIV and it was evil westerners trying to kill off Africans. Never mind that the oral vaccine never contained the virus, and that the newer injectable vaccine has been safe for years.

The result of the reporter’s decision to sell a sensational story is that Muslim immans from places as far apart as Nigeria and Pakistan have refused to let their children receive the vaccine; the result is paralysis for life for some children, and at least one Pakistani physician giving vaccinations was killed by the Taliban.

Most parents in Africa and Asia are aware that measles kill, so accept this vaccine. But how long until some demagogue decides to become a big shot by blaming X on evil Westerners planning to kill them?

One has to put the small risk of problems into perspective. The autism rate is the same with or without the measles vaccine, so even if a tiny percentage were caused by the vaccine, the risk must be placed in contrast to measles, the disease.

Some of us are old enough to remember measles epidemics:

“In the decade before the measles vaccination program began, an estimated 3 to 4 million persons in the United States were infected each year. Of these, 400 to 500 died, 48,000 were hospitalized, and another 1,000 developed chronic disability from measles encephalitis.”

In well nourished children, the mortality is low, but in the third world, measles is a major cause of death, with half a million children dying each year from the disease. That’s a lot of children, but is actually much lower thanks to the vaccine: In 1990, the number was 900 thousand children dying of measles each year. And this number doesn’t include those brain damaged from the illness, or those whose “sore eyes” got infected, resulting in corneal ulceration and blindness.

One hopes that newspaper editors will learn from this epidemic that sensationalizing suspicions without showing the full story in perspective is irresponsible journalism. The result might be more newspapers sold and higher profit for them, but the public result is distrust of a medical system by a public who doesn’t understand that a tiny percentage of “bad” results might be a lot better than the huge number of those harmed by not using the medicine or vaccine at all.


Nancy Reyes is a retired physician living in the rural Philippines. Her website is Finest Kind Clinic and Fishmarket, and she writes medical articles at HeyDoc Xanga Blog.

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