The Jenny McCarthy Effect
In 2009, the number of kids in commercial health plans who were vaccinated dropped almost four percentage points. This finding comes from the National Committee for Quality Assurance (NCQA), a nonprofit dedicated to improving healthcare quality. One reason for the decrease, suggests NCQA, is what some call the Jenny McCarthy effect: the unproven theories connecting vaccines to autism, put out loudly by celebrities like Jenny. “The drop in childhood vaccinations is disturbing because parents are rejecting valuable treatment based on misinformation,” says NCQA president Margaret O’Kane.
This finding made me think about a talk I heard at the American Academy of Pediatrics conference last month. Paul Offit, M.D., chief of the division of infectious diseases and the director of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, was talking to a packed room of doctors about vaccine exemptions. He said that when growing numbers of parents choose not to immunize their children because of religious or other non-medical reasons, there’s one nearly guaranteed outcome: Unwanted diseases start coming back. He gave several examples of recent outbreaks, including measles, mumps, and Hib (which is the leading cause of bacterial meningitis). They’ve all cropped up in communities where parents have chosen not to vaccinate their children.
Dr. Offit also took “alternative vaccine schedules” to task, citing the unfortunate popularity of Dr. Bob Sears’ suggestion that parents delay several vaccines. Waiting to give your child certain vaccines may sound reasonable enough, but the end result can be as dangerous as if you don’t immunize your child at all. “At the very least, they will increase the time during which children are susceptible to vaccine-preventable diseases,” Dr. Offit has written. “If more parents insist on Sears’ vaccine schedules, then fewer children will be protected, with the inevitable consequence of continued or worsening outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases.” In person, he was a little more emotional, describing the rigorous science behind the Centers for Disease Control and Preventions recommended schedule as well as that of the AAP’s and contrasting that to Dr. Sears’. If it weren’t so scary, he said, “It would be funny: You’ve got the CDC, the AAP, and ‘Dr. Bob’s Schedule.’ You’ve got to admire the hubris.”
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