Family Matters

Are Vaccines Safe? A Major Media Outlet’s Specious Story Fans the Debate

The Learning Channel's website yanked a story that was riddled with mistruths and flat-out errors — but only after major medical organizations complained.

  • Share
  • Read Later
Jeffrey Hamilton / Getty Images

Discovery Communications bills itself as the “No. 1 nonfiction media company,” which made it even odder when an article titled “Why Shouldn’t We Vaccinate Our Children?” popped up recently on one of its websites.

The post — by writer Josh Clark of HowStuffWorks — appeared on the Learning Channel’s (TLC) website; both HowStuffWorks and TLC are owned by Discovery Communications. Riddled with mistruths and flat-out errors, the post prompted a coalition of physicians’ organizations and vaccine activists to collaborate on a sharply worded letter signed by 19 groups, including the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the American Medical Association, defending immunization as “one of the most important decisions parents make to ensure their children’s health”:

Parents need accurate, complete information about immunizations — which they often look for online. So we were astounded when we found an article on a Discovery Company website that perpetuates dangerous myths and untruths about vaccines. We cannot understand how a company that celebrates the latest in scientific achievements would feature an article so inaccurate and wholly biased against science.

The letter was sent last Thursday to Eileen O’Neill, group president for Discovery Channel and TLC; later that day, the article was removed from the site. A representative from Discovery did not respond to requests for comment or for an interview with Clark.

“Discovery took down the article tonight = good things happen when smart people band together to support science!” e-mailed Amy Pisani, executive director of Every Child by Two, a vaccine-advocacy organization that learned about the article from a group of mothers who practice attachment parenting (the subject of TIME magazine’s übercontroversial cover story earlier this month). The mothers, according to Pisani, were shunned from their online attachment-parenting group because they vaccinated their children.

At a time when 12% of U.S. children don’t receive their vaccinations according to the schedule recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) — and some don’t receive them at all — public-health organizations are particularly sensitive to misinformation. The article by Clark — who is described in his bio as a “senior writer and co-host of the Stuff You Should Know podcast” — suggested that kids can “catch” the disease from the vaccine. (They can’t.) His story also mused that science has already “conquered” diseases including polio and pertussis, otherwise known as whooping cough, so why bother to vaccinate your child? In response, the letter writers countered:

Polio is still endemic in parts of the world, and pertussis is killing infants here in the U.S. Several states have declared epidemics of pertussis this year. Measles, too, is making a comeback, with more cases in the U.S. in 2011 than in 15 years. These diseases pose real threats to children who are unprotected by vaccines.

(MORE: Parents Wary of Childhood Vaccines? Here’s How to Persuade Them)

The article also shared incorrect information about the mercury-based preservative thimerosal, explaining that it’s included in the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine — the target of a thoroughly debunked study that fraudulently claimed the vaccine caused an uptick in autism diagnoses. The MMR vaccine, note the letter writers, does not and never did contain thimerosal.

“It was so full of misconceptions and ignored the positive parts of vaccines that our main concern was how it could have gone through a review process and been accepted,” says Dr. Robert Block, AAP president, referring to Clark’s story. “We were incredulous about the blatant falsehood of almost everything he was writing about. It’s very difficult for readers to understand the difference between this and what is true.”

There’s no question that vaccines do pose some potential risks — fever and pain, mostly, with very rare instances of extremely serious side effects. But every major medical association believes the risks of immunization are trumped by the benefits to communal health. As far back as 2000, a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that exemptors were 22 times more likely to get measles and six times more likely to catch pertussis than vaccinated children. The study also concluded that schools with outbreaks of pertussis — which has recently swept through Washington state, resulting in 1,484 cases through May 12, compared with 134 reported cases during the same period last year — had more vaccine exemptors than schools with no outbreaks.

Some states — most recently Vermont — have debated the legitimacy of the “philosophical exemption,” which allows parents to opt out of vaccinating their kids on moral grounds. At the same time, there’s a groundswell of parents who are growing increasingly irritated that they can’t find out which of their children’s classmates aren’t immunized — thus putting at risk the health of their own kids, especially those with compromised immune systems. “Don’t you think you should have a right to know?” says Pisani. “How about a mom whose child has leukemia? She doesn’t want to send her kid to school around kids that have not been vaccinated.”

(MORE: 1 in 10 Parents Skip or Delay Vaccines)

Although fewer than 2% of parents say they outright refuse all vaccines for their children, doctors have noted a significant increase in the number of moms and dads who express concerns about vaccine safety. Wendy Sue Swanson, a pediatrician at Seattle Children’s Hospital who blogs as Seattle Mama Doc about vaccines, calls this new critical mass “the middle ground.” “Zero dosers” — what immunologists call those parents who don’t vaccinate their kids — have always been around; what’s changed is the skepticism with which the majority of parents — who do end up vaccinating according to the recommended schedule or a more protracted one — now approach immunization.

“People do it, but they’re nervous,” says Swanson, who has her work cut out for her in a state that’s got the highest proportion of unvaccinated kids entering kindergarten — 6.2%. “There isn’t a lot of trust. They’ve all heard the story that Jenny McCarthy told: the day her kid got the MMR shot, the light went out of his eyes. This storytelling has come from the antivax crowd and is extremely provocative. I thought about those stories too when my kids got their MMR shot. I know the science, but I’m still a mom and I worry about my kids.”

At the CDC, which hosts focus groups on a wide range of health-related topics, facilitators often find it hard to keep participants engaged. The agency’s vaccine focus groups are the exception: those moms who participate in information-gathering sessions about immunization can’t get enough. They stay after the focus group has ended and keep debating. When they leave, they swap e-mail addresses. “It’s interesting to think about what we have heard in focus groups: parents feel they are doing due diligence, and that’s just what parents today do,” says Kristine Sheedy, associate director of communication science in CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases.

Challenging the need for vaccination, says Sheedy, is “the new norm. Vaccines have been controversial, and as a parent, it’s your job to raise concerns with your provider. Parents today are out there seeking information. If you do a Google search on infant vaccines, you will find a whole lot of stuff that would raise concern among any rational person.”

Like Clark’s article. A revised version titled “Five Things to Consider When Deciding to Vaccinate Your Child,” which corrected some errors but left others, has also been taken down. But a different article, “Back-to-School Physicals: What to Expect,” still refers to the “informative” original article (click on the link and readers are redirected to HowStuffWorks’ home page):

Why Shouldn’t We Vaccinate Our Children?
Some parents are uncomfortable having their children receive vaccinations because of potential risks. Our advice? Talk to your doctor and do your research to make an informed decision about what’s best for your family. Also, read this informative article by writer Josh Clark for more in-depth information.

On Friday, Seth Mnookin, author of The Panic Virus, which explores the cult of fear that has emerged around immunization, slammed Clark’s article, calling it “so bad, in fact, that I briefly wondered if it might be a deliberate effort to point out the lunacy of antivaccine activists. (It wasn’t.)” 

MORE: Should Pediatricians ‘Fire’ Patients Whose Parents Don’t Vaccinate?