Nearly 20 years after the former Dr. Andrew Wakefield published his now widely debunked findings linking childhood vaccinations to autism and bowel disease, the effects are still felt.
That is because, despite overwhelming scientific evidence proving otherwise, roughly 10 percent of the nearly 600 metro-area residents surveyed in a poll conducted by South Nassau Communities Hospital believe that vaccines cause autism in children. Additionally, the poll, underwritten by the Bethpage Federal Credit Union, revealed that 29 percent of residents interviewed remained unsure of the link between childhood vaccines and autism. As kids headed back to school this year, medical experts at the hospital implored parents to get their children vaccinated.
“This study unfortunately re-documented that a lot of people still feel that there is a connection between vaccination and autism,” said Dr. Aaron Glatt, chairman of the Department of Medicine at South Nassau, and a spokesman for the Infectious Disease Society of America at a Sept. 6 news conference revealing the results of the poll.
Multiple organizations and dozens of subsequent studies, he said, have since disproven that connection with near certainty, and in 2010, the journal that published Wakefield’s study retracted the article citing serious deficiencies in his methodology. Despite this, however, “The myth that autism and vaccines are related persists when there is no scientific evidence to support it,” Glatt said.
He added that vaccinations remain the only way to prevent fatal childhood illnesses, and that they have proven effective in eradicating diseases such as smallpox, which killed an average 300 million people per century before the vaccine was discovered. “Measles, mumps, rubella, diphtheria, pertussis,” he said listing off deadly ailments. “All potentially fatal or serious diseases that are essentially all prevented and preventable to a large extent by vaccines.”
Glatt explained that although the rate of childhood vaccination has reached somewhere between 85 to 90 percent in the United States, a threshold of 95 percent should be passed in order for the vaccinations to reach their maximum protective potential.
“You’re not only impacting yourself, you’re impacting the rest of the community,” Glatt said of choosing to not vaccinate a child. The risks, he said, do not lie exclusively with the child who is unprotected. “Vaccines aren’t perfect,” he said. “Some people will get the disease despite being vaccinated, but if that 95 percent threshold is crossed, we will prevent to a greater extent these occurrences.”
Speaking after Glatt, South Nassau’s chief medical officer, Dr. Adhi Sharma, talked about the evidence pointing to the benefit of vaccinations. “Vaccines are the number-one medical intervention that has been able, to date, to save billions of lives,” he said. “This is not an if, or a maybe, it simply is.”
Sharma agreed with New York state’s vaccination requirements for public school kids, which legally mandate that every year, each child receive a minimum number of vaccines before they can attend school. “From a public health and social policy standpoint, it makes sense to have school requirements for vaccinations,” he said. “We send our children to school to learn, we expect them to be in a safe environment.”
He echoed Glatt’s concern that children who remain unvaccinated are not just a risk to themselves but to others. “Some of these viral illnesses can be spread from a child who had not been vaccinated to one who has as they get older or if the vaccination is not 100 percent [effective]. There is no reason for that exposure,” he said. “I certainly support the state in its public health policy.”
Sharma said he also supported physicians who refuse to allow unvaccinated children into their practice out of concern for other patients and warned that as the country sees dips in vaccination rates, illnesses not seen for decades could appear again. “We forget how horrible these diseases were because we don’t see them anymore,” he explained. “Most physicians will never have seen these diseases or might have only read about them in a textbook until now because people are not getting vaccinated.”
The survey was the third in South Nassau’s series of Truth in Medicine polls intended to educate the public about health issues so they can take better care of themselves and seek appropriate medical care when needed. Glatt and Sharma said they hoped the results of the vaccination poll would help educate parents on how to best care for their children’s health.
“This is one medical treatment that prevents you from getting sick,” Sharma said. “How can you ask for something better than that?”