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As The Facts Win Out, Vaccinations May, Too

Discredited vaccination researcher Andrew Wakefield was brought to a new low this week when a prominent British medical journal accused him of outright fraud.

Wakefield authored a 1998 study linking vaccines to autism -- a study that continues to fuel the anti-vaccination movement even as Wakefield's research is discredited by a growing number of sources.

Further research and accusations that Wakefield doctored results in his research have given new hope to those who would like to see the growing ranks of anti-vaccination parents start to shrink.

Seth Mnookin, a contributing editor at Vanity Fair and author of The Panic Virus, tells NPR's Guy Raz that might happen.

"The public health community and doctors are aware of the need to communicate more effectively," he says -- in a way they weren't several years ago.

A Cautionary Story

In April 2006, 3-year-old Matthew Lacek's sore throat turned into a near-death emergency. At the hospital, doctors thought it might be asthma, but their treatments weren’t working.

After several hours, a veteran pediatrician arrived. He looked at Matthew, then turned to the child's parents, Kelly and Dan Lacek.

"He said, 'Did you have your son vaccinated?'" Kelly remembers. They had not. "’If this is what I think it is, he doesn't have that much time to live,'" the doctor said.

Matthew had Hib, or haemophilus influenza type B, which can cause lethal swelling in the windpipe. The disease had been virtually wiped out since the introduction of a vaccine in the mid-1980s. But in 2003, the Laceks -- alarmed by growing autism rates and news reports that suggested a link to vaccinations -- had opted not to give the vaccination to their son.

After six days in the hospital on heavy doses of antibiotics and in a medically induced coma, Matthew woke up. Amazingly, he made a full recovery, with no lasting brain damage or developmental issues. Lacek still remembers what the doctor who made Matthew's initial diagnosis told her.

"'Please, do me a favor, and make a decision with your husband to get him vaccinated right away,'" the doctor told her. "He said, 'He's a one-in-a-million child who came out of this with nothing wrong with him."

Consequences of a Growing Movement

Hib and many other diseases thought to be eradicated have returned as more parents choose not to vaccinate their children.

Mnookin says diseases like whooping cough or pertussis have seen huge rises in cases across the country. Last year in California, there were more cases of whooping cough than at any point in half a century. Ten children died.

With children now at risk for diseases that were thought to be forgotten, "the risk of not getting vaccinated felt notional to a lot of parents," he says.

A 2010 pediatric study reveals the movement is growing. Twenty-five percent of parents believe vaccines could cause developmental problems in kids — a rise Mnookin blames, in part, on the media.

When the media puts celebrity and anti-vaccination advocate Jenny McCarthy alongside experts from the Center For Disease Control and Prevention, he says, it "gives the impression that there's an equal number of people on two sides of this.  And it's just not true."

Countering The Fears

"The American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Medical Association, the CDC, the EPA, doctors, scientists around the world all agree -- vaccines are safe," Mnookin says. That scientific consensus is now being trumpeted by a more communicative public health community.

"In pediatricians' offices, there are now, oftentimes, informational pamphlets," he says.

Seminars are held after hours for parents to discuss their concerns.

Additionally, he hopes parents become savvier researchers in the information age. Just Googling "vaccines" and "autism" is dangerous, he says. "There are reliable sources of information out there, and I think those are the people we should look to."
Mnookin recommends the websites of the CDC,American Academy of Pediatrics, and American Medical Association for reliable information about vaccine risks.

"There have been questions that were raised in the past that should have been -- and were -- examined. At this point, we're sort of at an asked-and-answered juncture of this debate."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

NPR Staff