New Group Targets Misinformation and Fear About Immunizations

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Oct. 30, 2000 (Chicago) -- Researchers presented data on some alarming misconceptions parents have about the benefits and risks of vaccines at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) on Monday.

One in four American parents thinks that childhood immunizations "actually weaken a child's immune system," says Bruce Gellin, MD, MPH, and another 23% of American parents say that the number of vaccinations children get is actually harmful. Neither belief, Gellin said at a press briefing, has any basis in scientific fact. The findings presented at the meeting also appear in a study to be published in November issue of the journal Pediatrics.

The study was released at a press conference that launched the National Network for Immunization Information (NNII), a new nonprofit group whose aim is dissemination of "timely, accurate, clear, objective information on immunization issues," according to a prepared statement. Gellin, executive director of the new group, is an adjunct assistant professor in the department of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville, Tenn.

Gellin is first author of the Pediatrics study, in which a national sample of 1,600 parents of children age 6 or younger was surveyed by telephone. Although most parents -- 87% -- were supportive of immunization programs, the large number that questioned the validity of vaccination programs is very troubling, says Louis Cooper, MD, professor of pediatrics at the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Columbia University in New York. Cooper is president-elect of the AAP and serves on the steering committee of NNII.

"I am old enough to remember the hysteria of polio summers. The cancelled trips to movies and days at swimming pools," Cooper says. "I also remember the horror of being a medical student in wards filled with patients in iron lungs." According to Cooper, many of "today's physicians have never seen these things," and that may make them less concerned about the dangers posed by unvaccinated children.

Parents, too, are unaware of the dangers, says Samuel Katz, MD, who serves as co-chair of the NNII, along with former Health and Human Services' Secretary Louis W. Sullivan, MD. Katz was co-creator of the measles vaccine and currently is a professor of pediatrics at Duke University in Durham, N.C.

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One parent who learned the dangers of delaying her child's vaccination is Suzanne Walther of Murfreesboro, Tenn. In a halting voice, Walther told the story of her youngest daughter, Mary Catherine. While she was pregnant with Mary Catherine, Walther became aware of the antivaccine movement through a friend who told her that vaccines are harmful. "I have three children -- a boy [who's] 8 and another boy who is 4," she tells WebMD. In 1998, she says, "we spent all day Christmas Eve at a hospital emergency room because our son had an asthma attack." Her friend told her that one of the "dangers" of vaccinations is that they cause asthma.

At that point, she started researching the Internet, where she discovered "a lot of very scary information," she says. She went to her pediatrician, her Ob/Gyn, and her family physician with her concerns, but no one "really answered my questions," she says. When she delivered her baby, she saw a notice on the wall in the hospital nursery. "It said to withhold all hepatitis B vaccines until a new thimerosal-free shipment arrived. That one sign on the wall confirmed for me some of the scare stories I found on the Internet," Walther says.

Thimerosal is a preservative that the body metabolizes into mercury. Although no studies have suggested that thimerosal poses a risk, U.S. vaccine makers, after prodding from the AAP, have moved to eliminate thimerosal, Katz says.

With that scant information, Walther, over the objections of her pediatrician, decided to delay her new daughter's immunizations. "When Mary Catherine was 11 months old, she had a crabby day," Walther says. "For some reason, I decided to take her to the doctor. ... By late that day, she was being admitted to the intensive care unit at Vanderbilt Hospital. Her diagnosis was meningitis caused by Haemophilus influenzae type B -- Hib -- a condition that I could have protected her against with a shot when she was 2 months old. For three days, she didn't move, she didn't cry. She was in such pain."

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Fortunately, Mary Catherine recovered completely and was released after celebrating her first birthday in the intensive care unit. But during that stay, Walther became transformed from a vaccine opponent to an advocate for childhood immunizations and for better communication between doctors and patients.

Walther says the new organization, NNII, of which she is a member, will supply the "answers that parents need to get."

For parents who may worry about the group's involvement with either the pharmaceutical industry or the government, Gellin explains, "We have refused funding from both the drug companies and the government. We are funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation."

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