GUY RAZ, host:
Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.
This past week, the British Medical Journal released a report calling a 1998 study linking vaccines to autism a, quote, "absolute fraud."
The man who led that study, Andrew Wakefield, was already stripped of his medical license in Britain last year, and the journal that published his work, Lancet, retracted it, as well. Wakefield offered his reaction on CNN earlier in the week.
Mr. ANDREW WAKEFIELD: What it is is a ruthless, pragmatic attempt to crush any investigation into valid vaccine safety concerns...
RAZ: Wakefield's study unleashed a powerful anti-vaccine movement in Europe and in the United States. Many parents, worried about reports of a link between vaccines and developmental disorders, chose and continue to choose not to have their kids immunized.
One of those parents was Kelly Lacek. And one night, in April, 2006, Kelly and her husband were on their way out to a church dance near their home outside Pittsburgh. Before they left, their youngest son, 3-year-old Matthew, complained of a sore throat. At first, the Laceks didn't think much of it.
Ms. KELLY LACEK: So we just made sure he was okay. We went to the dance. And then when we got back, he was laboring to breathe. He was, like, hunched over and was laboring to breathe. We figured, oh, we'll just take him to the local hospital, which is Forest Regional.
RAZ: As his fever reached 104, doctors gave Matthew Tylenol and tried to help ease his congestion. They thought it might be asthma. But the treatments weren't helping.
Ms. LACEK: It was actually more of a seasoned or veteran doctor that came in too. And then, the gentleman had asked me, after he looked at him, and said: Did you have your son vaccinated?
And at that point, you know, I said no. And then he knew exactly at that point, exactly what it was. And he said: If this is what I think it is, he doesn't have that much time to live.
RAZ: The doctor determined Matthew had Hib, a potentially deadly bacterial disease that leads to meningitis. Before the vaccine came onto the market in 1985, a thousand children under age 3 died from it each year. Since then, it's been virtually eradicated. But in recent years, it's returned to children who have not received the Hib vaccine. In Matthew's case, the clock was ticking. No one was sure whether he'd live.
Ms. LACEK: By Tuesday, he was starting - his blood pressure and his heart rate were fluctuating, and it was just really hard. We weren't sure if we were going to lose him or not.
This is the first time I actually cried. Sorry. So at that point, you know, the doctors, the young doctors were there, and we would just whisper in his ear. And you can just see the tears coming down his face because he wasn't able to communicate with us.
RAZ: Matthew spent six days in the hospital. Finally, on a Tuesday afternoon, after high doses of antibiotics, he came out of a medically induced coma, and his breathing tube was removed.
Ms. LACEK: They took the tube out, and as soon as it came out, you know, his -he was just learning to go to the bathroom at that point, and he said: I have to go potty. And then his favorite movie was on TV, and he just wanted to watch the movie.
RAZ: Amazingly, Matthew recovered. Today, he's 7. He has no lasting brain damage or developmental effects. And at the time, this is what the lead doctor said to Kelly Lacek.
Ms. LACEK: Please do me a favor. When, you know, you make a decision with your husband to get him vaccinated right away. But he said he's a one in a million child that came out of this with, you know, nothing wrong with him.
RAZ: Kelly Lacek's story is told in the new book by Journalist Seth Mnookin. It's called "The Panic Virus." Over the past two years, a record number of children have been diagnosed with pertussis or whooping cough, a disease that was virtually eradicated with the vaccine. Same with measles.
And Mnookin wanted to get to the bottom of the phenomenon, why so many educated parents choose to either not vaccinate their children or to wait on them.
Mr. SETH MNOOKIN (Author, "The Panic Virus"): When I started working on the book, I really had no sense, one way or another, what the reality of the situation was.
And I started to hear a lot about it both in the media and from my friends, from my peers who were young parents or having children and were also very concerned with this.
So as I looked into it and researched it, I found interest in the way people justified themselves relying on instinct and intuition, as opposed to research and facts.
RAZ: So to you, there is no debate, that to have someone on - who would make a counter-argument that would say, yes, vaccines are dangerous, that's an illegitimate argument in your view because the science doesn't back it up. There is no debate.
Mr. MNOOKIN: Yes. I think at this point, this is probably the issue regarding public health that has received more attention from scientists and researchers around the world than any other single issue. We're sort of at an asked-and-answered juncture of this.
RAZ: In 2010, the journal Pediatrics released a poll. It showed that 25 percent - this was last year - 25 percent of parents believe vaccines can cause developmental disorders in healthy kids.
I know that you're a parent. I'm a parent. I've got a kid who has been vaccinated. But, you know, I have to admit, every time I took him to the doctor, in the back of my mind, there was that thought. Did you ever have that?
Mr. MNOOKIN: Absolutely. And I think that that is very understandable. And in fact, I think one of the reasons we've gotten to this point is because for too long, the medical community and the public health community treated parents who came in and had concerns as if they were crazy, as if they almost had no right to bring this up.
RAZ: You have a chapter in the book about Jenny McCarthy, the actress. It's called "Jenny's McCarthy's Mommy Instinct." And she, of course, is an outspoken vaccination critic, and I want to play a clip of her. This is her appearance on Larry King in 2008.
(Soundbite of TV show, "Larry King Live")
Ms. JENNY McCARTHY (Actress): Well, the schedule back in 1983 was 10 shots given. Today, there are 36 shots given.
Mr. LARRY KING (Host, "Larry King live"): You think that's too many?
Ms. McCARTHY: Too many, too soon. We need to get rid of the toxins; the mercury, which I'm so tired of everyone saying it's been removed; aluminum, ether, antifreeze. These are toxic ingredients in shots...
RAZ: Seth Mnookin, this is scary stuff to hear for any parent. How significant and important has Jenny McCarthy been for the anti-vaccination movement?
Mr. MNOOKIN: She has probably brought more attention to this over the last half-decade than any other single person. In that instance on Larry King, well, there isn't antifreeze in vaccines. Mercury has been removed from childhood vaccines. There is a mercury preservative that is in some variants of the flu vaccine.
This is one of those areas - people get bogged down in it, but the type of mercury was ethyl mercury, as opposed to methyl mercury, which is the mercury that we know can be very poisonous.
RAZ: And by the way, there has been no link found between the mercury and any developmental disorders.
Mr. MNOOKIN: I mean, not only that, there have been studies involving literally millions of children showing that there is no link.
Even if you put on Jenny McCarthy with someone from the CDC or a pediatrician, it gives the impression that there's sort of an equal number of people on two sides of this.
And for years, this was framed through a narrative of parents who believed that their children had been injured by vaccines, and that's a very compelling narrative and a very difficult one to counteract with research papers and scientists who sound as if they're speaking to graduate seminars.
RAZ: Given that 25 percent of parents are worried about whether vaccines can cause disorders, presumably, this is going to become a worse problem.
Mr. MNOOKIN: Well, I think there are a couple of reasons to be hopeful. The public health community and doctors are aware of the need to communicate more effectively in a way that they weren't a decade ago.
So in pediatrician's offices, there are now, oftentimes, informational pamphlets, vaccine seminars that are held after office hours. I think what is dangerous is opening up Google and typing in vaccines, autism. And so we need to make intelligent decisions about where we're going to get our information.
RAZ: That's Seth Mnookin. He's a contributing editor at Vanity Fair. His new book is called "The Panic Virus: The True Story of Medicine, Science and Fear."
Seth Mnookin, thank you.
Mr. MNOOKIN: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
Twenty-five percent of Americans believe vaccines could lead to development disorders in children. How can so many people be wrong?
Discredited vaccination researcher Andrew Wakefield was brought to a new low this week when a prominent British medical journal accused him of outright fraud.
Wakefield authored a 1998 study linking vaccines to autism -- a study that continues to fuel the anti-vaccination movement even as Wakefield's research is discredited by a growing number of sources.
Further research and accusations that Wakefield doctored results in his research have given new hope to those who would like to see the growing ranks of anti-vaccination parents start to shrink.
Seth Mnookin, a contributing editor at Vanity Fair and author of The Panic Virus, tells NPR's Guy Raz that might happen.
"The public health community and doctors are aware of the need to communicate more effectively," he says -- in a way they weren't several years ago.
A Cautionary Story
In April 2006, 3-year-old Matthew Lacek's sore throat turned into a near-death emergency. At the hospital, doctors thought it might be asthma, but their treatments weren’t working.
After several hours, a veteran pediatrician arrived. He looked at Matthew, then turned to the child's parents, Kelly and Dan Lacek.
"He said, 'Did you have your son vaccinated?'" Kelly remembers. They had not. "’If this is what I think it is, he doesn't have that much time to live,'" the doctor said.
Matthew had Hib, or haemophilus influenza type B, which can cause lethal swelling in the windpipe. The disease had been virtually wiped out since the introduction of a vaccine in the mid-1980s. But in 2003, the Laceks -- alarmed by growing autism rates and news reports that suggested a link to vaccinations -- had opted not to give the vaccination to their son.
After six days in the hospital on heavy doses of antibiotics and in a medically induced coma, Matthew woke up. Amazingly, he made a full recovery, with no lasting brain damage or developmental issues. Lacek still remembers what the doctor who made Matthew's initial diagnosis told her.
"'Please, do me a favor, and make a decision with your husband to get him vaccinated right away,'" the doctor told her. "He said, 'He's a one-in-a-million child who came out of this with nothing wrong with him."
Consequences of a Growing Movement
Hib and many other diseases thought to be eradicated have returned as more parents choose not to vaccinate their children.
Mnookin says diseases like whooping cough or pertussis have seen huge rises in cases across the country. Last year in California, there were more cases of whooping cough than at any point in half a century. Ten children died.
With children now at risk for diseases that were thought to be forgotten, "the risk of not getting vaccinated felt notional to a lot of parents," he says.
A 2010 pediatric study reveals the movement is growing. Twenty-five percent of parents believe vaccines could cause developmental problems in kids — a rise Mnookin blames, in part, on the media.
When the media puts celebrity and anti-vaccination advocate Jenny McCarthy alongside experts from the Center For Disease Control and Prevention, he says, it "gives the impression that there's an equal number of people on two sides of this. And it's just not true."
Countering The Fears
"The American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Medical Association, the CDC, the EPA, doctors, scientists around the world all agree -- vaccines are safe," Mnookin says. That scientific consensus is now being trumpeted by a more communicative public health community.
"In pediatricians' offices, there are now, oftentimes, informational pamphlets," he says.
Seminars are held after hours for parents to discuss their concerns.
Additionally, he hopes parents become savvier researchers in the information age. Just Googling "vaccines" and "autism" is dangerous, he says. "There are reliable sources of information out there, and I think those are the people we should look to."
Mnookin recommends the websites of the CDC, American Academy of Pediatrics, and American Medical Association for reliable information about vaccine risks.
"There have been questions that were raised in the past that should have been -- and were -- examined. At this point, we're sort of at an asked-and-answered juncture of this debate."