I had the awesome privilege of interviewing Dr. Paul Offit from Children’s Hospital at the University of Pennsylvania on my podcast: The Smartest Doctor in the Room.
Dr. Offit is the doctor every media outlet from the New York Times to the Wall Street Journal goes to whenever there is an outbreak of measles or some other pediatric infectious disease. He has seen quite a lot in his career – and done a lot. In fact, he is the inventor of the Rotavirus vaccine that is in current use.
We both addressed the thorny issues as to why certain pediatric infectious diseases like measles are resurging and why parents are not vaccinating their children.
Inspired by His Mentor
In Dr. Offit’s book, Vaccinated, he pays homage to his mentor Maurice Hilleman. Hilleman is not a household name, even in the medical community, but he invented 9 of the vaccines that are routinely given to children.
In comparison, Dr. Jonas Salk, the inventor of the polio vaccine invented just the polio vaccine and he was labeled a savior of humanity.
Dr. Offit got to meet Hilleman while doing his infectious disease fellowship at Penn’s children’s hospital. What he loved was that this man not only was brilliant, but he got things done. Practical things that saved thousands of lives. He didn’t just do chemistry experiments in a lab or care how many papers he published. Maurice Hilleman only cared about how many children’s lives he could save. Ironically, Hilleman wasn’t a doctor and not even a Ph.D., he was born dirt-poor on the plains of Montana but had a knack for science which he took to the highest levels.
Parents Who Are Anti-Vaxxers
In the podcast, Dr. Offit and I discussed what could be driving these parents, who refuse to vaccinate their children and are part of the anti-vaxxer movement. Many of these parents are deeply religious but from different religions. The problem is that these personal decisions not only affect the parent’s child but can affect all their direct contacts – both adults and children.
Dr. Offit brought up the case of a boy named Luke that suffered from Leukemia and couldn’t receive the measles vaccine. He asked on an interview why others would put him at risk since they were healthy and could receive the vaccine.
Parents Who are Vaccine Hesitant
The more silent but potentially just as an impactful group of parents is those that labeled vaccine-hesitant. These are intelligent, rational parents in almost every other aspect of their child’s well-being except when it comes to vaccination. They do believe in science and medicine. They do believe their children should be vaccinated but on a less intensive schedule. The reason for their concern is the elephant in the room – the risk of autism.
Major studies have debunked the one and only one study that associated autism with the MMR vaccine (Wakefield study in Lancet 1998). However, fears and myths once let loose are hard to overturn. Dr. Offit made the good point that most of the autism research is pointing to genetic abnormalities that are present at birth but not picked up until the first year or two of life.
Dr. Offit and I agreed it is hard for parents to understand how important vaccines are in preventing the resurgence of these infectious diseases that seem to have been almost completely eradicated: today there are pediatricians who have never seen a case of mumps, measles or rubella in their career!
Why are We Still Vaccinating Children?
So, why are we still vaccinating children? These viruses still exist in the world, but the concept of herd immunity explains that if 90% of the population is vaccinated the likelihood of an epidemic is remote. Doctors have to keep vaccinating children to keep the population safe.
You can surely “Google” medical photos of what measles and mumps looked like. Rubella you wouldn’t see as much, but it caused devastating birth defects in pregnant mothers from deafness to blindness. Polio is unheard of today, but try to find old video footage of hospital wards that were filled with children limping or in wheelchairs.
Faith in Our Immune System
I always tell my patients: the one thing I truly believe is that in most of us our immune system is our best friend. It isn’t antibiotics that really cures an infection – it just slows down the bacteria, so our own immune system can take aim and annihilate them. I saw the opposite of this when I did my medical residency training caring for AIDS patients: their immune system was so dysfunctional that typical harmless or mild infections could be life-threatening.
My final words are that you please have a thoughtful conversation with your pediatrician if you are concerned about vaccine safety. And remember the wise words from Samuel Johnson:
Always pick experience over hope.
I’d love to hear your thoughts or comments – leave a comment below or on my twitter feed @deanmitchellmd.
And make sure to check out the podcast with Dr. Offit – click here to listen.
– Dr. Dean Mitchell M.D.
Mitchell Medical Group NYC & Long Island
About the Author – Dr. Dean Mitchell, M.D.
Dr. Dean Mitchell is a Board Certified Allergist and Immunologist based out of NYC. He graduated from the Sackler School of Medicine and completed training at the Robert Cooke Allergy Institute in New York City. He is also a Clinical Assistant Professor at Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine, a fellow of the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology, and the author of Dr. Dean Mitchell’s Allergy and Asthma Solution: The Ultimate Program for Reversing Your Symptoms One Drop at a Time. Dr. Dean Mitchell, M.D. has also been featured in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Fitness Magazine, Dr. Oz and News NY 1. Dr. Mitchell also hosts the podcast The Smartest Doctor in the Room – a combination of a lively, personal and in-depth interview with top healthcare specialists.