Health

The Anti-Vaccine Conspiracy Theory That Slips Under The Radar

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Thanks to a growing measles outbreak that originated at Disneyland last month, Americans have been embroiled in a national debate about childhood vaccination. The spread of the disease has put the spotlight back on parents who refuse immunizations for their kids — people who believe the shots aren’t safe, and who often cite the thoroughly debunked conspiracy theory that vaccines are linked to autism.

Those parents, typically disparagingly referred to as “anti-vaxxers,” are at the extreme end of the spectrum. Most American adults support vaccine requirements, and it’s very rare for kids to enter school without getting any shots at all. According to one 2009 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, just two percent of the population refuses vaccines altogether.

But that doesn’t mean that anti-vaccine sentiments are rare. Although the group that most Americans thinks of as “anti-vaxxers” may be small, there’s actually a much larger group of vaccine skeptics that flies more under the radar. A growing number of parents are delaying their kids’ vaccines, opting to make up their own schedule rather than strictly adhering to the federal government’s recommended schedule for childhood immunization.

These adults don’t necessarily think of themselves as conspiracy theorists along the lines of Jenny McCarthy. Indeed, many of them firmly reject the anti-vaxxer label. But medical experts say their views are just as anti-science as the idea that vaccines cause autism — and potentially very dangerous to public health.

Parents spacing out vaccines say they’re uncomfortable with the current schedule from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which stipulates that children should be immunized against a range of diseases — including pertussis, hepatitis, measles, mumps, chicken pox, and polio — before they turn six years old. Vaccinating young children against 14 different diseases in that time span means that some doctor’s visits include up to six shots at once. Some adults worry that’s too many for a baby’s body to handle. They’re skeptical their doctors are telling them the whole story.

“It’s kind of scary thinking about all the things going into your perfect newborn. I wasn’t comfortable giving five to six shots at a time to my tiny baby,” Selena Allison, a stay-at-home mom who lives in Orange County, told the Wall Street Journal this week. So she opted to delay her son’s measles shot until he was three years old — two years after the CDC wants kids to get it.

Allison is hardly alone. Although it’s hard to estimate exactly how many parents are going against the CDC’s recommendations and spacing out their kids’ shots, one 2011 study estimated that it could be as many as 30 percent. Another study published the same year found that one in ten parents are following an alternative schedule. According to federal researchers, one child out of every 12 is not receiving their first dose of the measles vaccine on time.

Like unfounded concerns over vaccines’ link to autism — which were stoked by a discredited researcher named Andrew Wakefield — theories about the issues with the CDC’s vaccination schedule largely originate from one public figure with a questionable scientific background.

Dr. Robert Sears, who has not personally conducted any research into vaccines, cashed in on parents’ anti-vaccine fears with The Vaccine Book, which was published in 2007 and has sold more than 100,000 copies since. In that book, Sears argues that parents should space out vaccines over 21 visits, instead of the 13 recommended by the government, to ease the potential burden on babies’ immune systems.

That may sound logical to parents who are worried that adverse effects may arise from giving their kids multiple shots at once. But there’s absolutely no scientific evidence to back it up. Sears’ alternative vaccination schedule — which he has admitted he simply made up — has been discredited by pediatricians, researchers, and a growing body of medical research.

“There is no safer way to give vaccines than according to the schedule,” Paul Offit, who directs the Vaccine Education Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and has thoroughly debunked Sears’ book, told the Wall Street Journal. “There is no alternative vaccine schedule. There’s the vaccine schedule which has been tested with hundreds of studies.”

The CDC’s schedule has been carefully timed to ensure that kids get the maximum protection against infectious diseases. It’s scheduled to interact with the body’s immune system at the times when the shots will be most effective, and it’s reevaluated each year to ensure that pediatricians are telling parents the most updated information possible. A recent yearlong review of all the available data on the subject has confirmed that the 13 visit schedule is perfectly safe.

There are potentially serious consequences to delaying vaccines. It’s a decision that ultimately increases medical risks without any documented benefits. Putting off recommended shots leaves young children vulnerable to contracting diseases during periods when they otherwise could have been protected. A 2013 study found that, with each delayed shot, kids have a greater chance of contracting pertussis or whooping cough. Those infections can be particularly serious in very young children, and even fatal in some cases.

“We immunize children so young against these diseases because infancy is the time period that kids are most vulnerable to life-threatening diseases,” Dr. Steve Perry, a pediatrician and the co-chair of the Colorado Children’s Immunization Coalition’s Policy Committee, wrote in an op-ed criticizing Sears’ alternative schedule. “The people at greatest risk of dying from vaccine-preventable disease are the very young and the very old. We vaccinate to save lives.”

Officials from the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Family Physicians, and the Department of Health and Human Services don’t mince words about this issue. In a fact sheet aimed at parents who may be concerned about the vaccination schedule, the agencies write, “Children do not receive any known benefits from following schedules that delay vaccines. Delaying vaccines puts children at known risk of becoming ill with diseases that could have been prevented.”