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PBS's Frontline Finds Itself on the Front Lines of "The Vaccine War"

Dr. Jay Gordon, the controversial pediatrician who treats Jenny McCarthy’s autistic son, Evan, released a statement today calling Frontline’s documentary The Vaccine War, “disgraceful,” perhaps in large part due to the fact that none of his interview footage was included in the final product.

Ken Tucker, television blogger for Entertainment Weekly, offered a preview of the series in his column yesterday.  His loathing of vaccine-hesitant members of Generation X is palpable. “And thus the vaccine-deniers can pursue their dangerously self-righteous agenda, secure in the knowledge that their little un-needled Jane or Johnny, should they contract a contagious disease, won’t cause a pandemic… because the rest of us are keeping such diseases at bay.”  He goes on to mock the hippie culture of Ashland, OR, featured in the first section of the documentary.  (Click here to watch the entire program.)  “The town, a wealthy community filled with health-food stores and overflowing with yoga mats, is a hotbed of vaccine-deniers. And, scientists say, a dreadful example of what could happen, because it’s far more likely that, should measles or whooping cough enter that community, it would spread much faster than in a town where citizens are thinking beyond the walls of their own houses, and of the public good.

It’s easy to understand why vaccinating your children is important.  As Steven Novella said in a 2008 post on the blog Science-Based Medicine:

If Gordon had his way… as soon as we got close to eradicating any disease we should back off on vaccinations for that disease, which would inevitably lead to its resurgence. We would forever be playing “whack a mole” with the disease, never eliminating it completely.

Gordon’s major bone of contention with The Vaccine War co-producer Katie McMahon is that, “‘Irresponsible moms against science’ was an easy takeaway from the show.”  While Frontline does air footage from both sides of the debate, it’s clear that their coverage is biased toward vaccination, with quotes like this one from Emilio Emini, head of “vaccine operations” (sounds creepy) at Pfizer:

“People haven’t seen these kinds of diseases in a while.  So people become complacent, they don’t vaccinate, and what they wind up doing is putting their children and themselves in considerable risk of a severe disease and infection.”

Dr. Paul Offit, co-inventor of the vaccine against rotavirus, is known as “Dr. Profit” among anti-vaccine groups.  When asked about the millions he’s made from the sale of his vaccine, he told Frontline, “It doesn’t matter whether I financially benefited or not.  The only thing that mattered is ‘Did the vaccine that we created… do what it was claimed to do?  Has it prevented hospitalization and suffering and death?’  And the answer to that question is yes.”  Gordon thinks Offit got a pass here, saying, “No one pursued Dr. Offit’s response about becoming rich from the vaccine he invented. He was allowed to slide right by that question without any follow up…. His many millions “don’t matter” he says. And you let it go.”

Jennifer Margulis, an Ashland, OR resident and author, thinks “it’s a mistake that we have a vaccine against rotavirus. In the third world maybe people are dying of rotavirus, but in this country you have to do back flips to show a death toll of people from rotavirus.”  Dr. Cynthia Cristofani, a pro-vaccine pediatric intensivist from Portland, OR, backs that up by saying that rotavirus kills 500,000 people annually, but mostly in remote parts of the world.

Since most anti-vaccine parents don’t immunize their children due to a fear of autism, the heart of the issue here is whether or not vaccines cause autism at all.  According to Frontline, the answer is no.  A 1998 paper written by Dr. Andrew Wakefield suggesting that the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) “triple shot” may lead to autism was retracted on February 2, 2010 by The Lancet, the medical publication in which it first appeared.  It turns out some of the children Wakefield studied were sent to him by a lawyer representing their families in a case against the pharmaceutical industry, which, in a domino effect, caused recent lawsuits on behalf of families dealing with autism to be thrown out of court.

The great vaccine debate is probably most neatly summarized in The Vaccine War by an exchange between an anti-vaccine Ashland mother and Dr. Jim Shames, the city’s public health officer.  He asked, “When you make that decision for your child, which you have a right to do, do you think you may be affecting other children?”  “No, I don’t,” the mother responded.  “Because if the vaccines work, who am I putting at risk?”

Which brings me back to Ken Tucker’s disdain for this type of selfishness.  “The Gen-X parents are the first generation to live in a world without polio, and they make an absurd leap: I don’t see it, so it can’t be that bad. They depend on what’s called “herd immunity” — the notion that a majority of other parents will vaccinate their children.”

As for Dr. Jay Gordon, he maintains that he is in a “third camp” of doctors who are neither pro- nor anti-vaccine.  “There are many doctors and even more parents who would like a more judicious approach to immunization. Give vaccines later, slower and with an individualized approach as we do in every other area of medicine.”

If you can’t get enough of this heated debate, here’s a lengthy post about The Vaccine War from Respectful Insolence, of ScienceBlogs.com.

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