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New Group Targets Misinformation and Fear About Immunizations

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WebMD Health News

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.

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.

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