Scott D. Pierce: NOVA special: Vaccinate or you risk the lives of children

First Published      Last Updated Oct 03 2014 02:21 pm

About 10 percent of American children are not immunized, and PBS' NOVA makes one thing clear — their parents are not only endangering their children's lives, but the lives of others.

And for almost no reason whatsoever. There is, for example, absolutely no evidence that vaccinations cause autism.

"Those who choose not to vaccinate their children are making a bad and misinformed choice that puts not only their children at risk, but those with whom their children come in contact at risk," said Dr. Paul Offit, chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. "Yes, it's a terrible decision."

The report, titled "Vaccines — Calling the Shots" (Wednesday, 8 p.m., PBS/Ch. 7), talks to parents who have made this "terrible decision." And it's not without sympathy for them.

But it also makes it clear they are acting on bad information, ignoring facts in favor of emotion.

"I don't think that parents are stupid," said Alison Singer, president of the Autism Science Foundation and herself the mother of a child with autism. "I think they come at this from a place of love, and they are so often devastated by the fact that, if they have a child with autism, that that child is suffering. And they want answers.

"Calling the Shots" doesn't dwell on it, but it points to the completely discredited 1998 article by a British doctor that linked autism and the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine. It wasn't even a study; it was a report on 12 children.

"Labs all over the world tried to replicate those findings, and no one could replicate them," Singer said. "Eventually, it was found that he falsified the data … but the damage was done because, once you put that scary idea in someone's head, it's very hard to get rid of it.... Parents were still afraid."

That's in no small part because of the efforts of people like Jenny McCarthy, who remains convinced that MMR caused her son's autism but has campaigned against immunizations.

"Jenny McCarthy has done a lot of harm and continues to do a lot of harm," Singer said. "And when confronted with the data, her response is, 'I don't care what the data show. I know in my heart that when my son received the MMR, the light left his eyes, and he became autistic.' Those anecdotes are very powerful."

So are the images of a 7-week-old baby with whooping cough in "Calling the Shots." So are the facts about children dying from preventable diseases.

"There's not a year that goes by at our hospital … where a child does not die of a vaccine preventable disease," Offit said. "Go into a hospital and watch the child over a seven- or eight-day period slowly fall off a cliff with their parents standing next to them. It makes you a passionate advocate for the vaccine."

Scott D. Pierce covers television for The Salt Lake Tribune. Email him at spierce@sltrib.com; follow him on Twitter @ScottDPierce.