Editorial: New perspective for vaccine 'refusers'

  • Updated: May 27, 2009 - 8:37 PM

Hauser case spotlights dangers of putting beliefs above facts.

At first glance, there seems little in common between Danny Hauser's Minnesota family and a group of Colorado parents causing concern in a sobering recent medical journal article.

The Hausers, who made headlines in refusing chemotherapy for their cancer-stricken 13-year-old, eke out a living with their seven other children on a farm near Sleepy Eye. The Colorado parents needed only routine care for their children and tended to come from metro neighborhoods indicating a "higher socioeconomic status,'' according to the study published in June's issue of Pediatrics.

Strikingly different circumstances, yet both the Hausers and the Colorado parents essentially followed the same decisionmaking process when it came to their kids' medical care. However well-intentioned, they cast aside science and shunned proven lifesaving traditional medical treatments, needlessly jeopardizing young lives. The Hausers rejected drugs to attack Danny's tumor. The Colorado parents rejected basic childhood immunizations, putting their children and others at risk of diseases that have filled cemeteries with too many tiny coffins throughout history.

Thankfully, Danny's parents have reconsidered, and it now appears he'll get the cancer-fighting drugs he needs. But across the nation, increasing numbers of parents continue to recklessly reject childhood vaccines. It's a dangerous trend, one fueled by Internet quacks and irresponsible antivaccine crusaders. Among the worst is former game show hostess and centerfold Jenny McCarthy.

Minnesota parents aren't immune. The state Department of Health estimates the number of parents exercising their right to opt out of school vaccine requirements has doubled over the past decade. That translates to between 2 and 3 percent of state school-aged children who may not be protected against diphtheria, pertussis (whooping cough), tetanus, measles, haemophilus influenzae type B and other potentially deadly diseases.

The study reported in Pediatrics is considered one of the most definitive to date because it's the first to use electronic medical records to document the risk of refusing immunizations. Funded by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, it focused on pertussis and tracked kids aged 2 months to 18 years who were enrolled in Kaiser Permanente of Colorado, a large Denver-based health plan. The results were shocking: Kids whose parents refused vaccinations were 23 times more likely to get pertussis than kids who got the shots. It's a conclusion that undercuts a reason parents commonly give in declining vaccinations: that the disease's rarity means their child won't contract it.

Researchers didn't document the Colorado parents' reasons for rejecting vaccines, but made clear that this group (called the "refusers") had the resources to make informed decisions but chose not to.

The reality is that the pathogens causing these diseases are still around; vaccines simply keep them at bay. Minnesotans had another powerful reminder of that last year, when an unusual outbreak of five Haemophilus influenzae type B cases occurred in Minnesota. Three of the children had not been vaccinated; one died.

Those who decline to immunize kids are making the same decision as the Hausers, putting beliefs above medical facts. The Sleepy Eye farm couple are now doing right by their son. We hope that vaccine "refusers" who followed Danny's plight will look at their own stance in a new light and give their children the medical care they deserve.

  • A FEARED DISEASE

    Pertussis (whooping cough) deserves its reputation as one of the most feared childhood diseases. During the 1920s and 1930s, there were on average more than 160,000 annual cases of this highly contagious bacterial disease, and more than 5,000 deaths a year. By 1976, case reports of pertussis had been reduced by 99 percent. The disease has been on the increase since then. Infants less than a year old are more likely to become seriously ill from pertussis and develop complications, a critical reason the vaccine protection is needed early in life.

    U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

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