As public health officials work to contain a measles outbreak that began at Disneyland, a Tucson-based doctors group is fueling fear of the measles vaccine.
The Association of American Physicians and Surgeons, a small group of doctors known for a skepticism of government, last week issued a news release opposing mandatory vaccination and raising questions about vaccine safety.
The Tucson-based group, which was founded in 1943, in that same release makes a link between autism and the measles vaccine, which is called MMR (measles, mumps and rubella).
The information from the group and its leader, Tucson physician Dr. Jane Orient, ignores evidence-based medicine, public health officials warn.
“I don’t believe that Dr. Orient’s comments are based on the best understanding of public health science. She’s wrong,” Pima County Health Department Director Dr. Francisco Garcia said.
And when the media covers the issue and puts one member of Orient’s group in a news story alongside one person supporting evidence-based medicine, it creates false balance, those same experts say.
“When Dr. Orient makes her comments and you have just one person respond, it looks like the two opinions are equivalent and they’re not,” said Elizabeth Jacobs, an associate professor of epidemiology at the University of Arizona’s Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health.
“What would be equivalent is to have her comment and the comment of a million doctors, nurses and epidemiologists who understand vaccination. That’s what would give the opinions equal balance.”
Jacobs said the information from Orient’s group also appears to validate the choice that more parents are making not to vaccinate their children.
Arizona is one of 20 states that allow what’s called a “personal-belief” exemption from vaccines that are otherwise required for children to attend school. While the number of parents choosing personal-belief exemptions remains small, it has lately become a growing group.
The percentage of preschoolers statewide with nonmedical vaccine exemptions has quadrupled since 2000, for example. It’s now at 4.1 percent.
And state data show that 9.1 percent of all Arizona kindergartners who attend charter schools also have personal-belief exemptions from getting vaccinated.
As the number of personal-belief exemptions climbs, vaccination rates are declining, threatening “herd immunity.” Fifty-five Pima County schools and child-care centers were below herd immunity for their measles vaccination rates in the 2013-14 academic year, a Star analysis found, using data from kindergarten, sixth grade and child-care classes.
“All I can tell you is that there is no scientific evidence that vaccines cause autism,” the UA’s Jacobs said. “No link has ever been found. It is frustrating, I understand for parents, but we don’t know what causes autism. There are risk factors that have been identified. But it’s not vaccines. The weight of the evidence shows that.”
Former British surgeon Andrew Wakefield’s link between MMR and autism appeared in a prestigious British medical journal in 1998. Several co-authors removed their names from the study in 2004 after learning Wakefield was paid by a law firm planning to sue vaccine manufacturers. The medical journal retracted the study in 2010.
In its release, Orient’s group says that while many factors may well contribute to autism, it is not unreasonable to suspect that MMR is one of them.
“Though most children tolerate the vaccine well, there are hundreds of reports of children who stopped making eye contact and lost language skills soon after receiving MMR,” the release states. “Science does not ignore observations.”
In addition to pockets of middle-class and wealthy parents choosing not to vaccinate their children, even politicians have been quoted as questioning vaccines.
Last week The New York Times wrote a story about Kentucky Republican U.S. Sen. Rand Paul’s comment that he’d heard from parents whose children had suffered profound mental disorders after getting vaccinated. The same article said Paul had a longtime affiliation with Orient’s group. Paul clarified his vaccine comment to the Times and said he did not believe vaccines are harmful.
In the wake of the Disneyland outbreak, many influential people and groups are speaking up in support of vaccines. Last week, the national organization Autism Speaks released a statement saying that vaccines do not cause autism, and that parents should vaccinate their children.
“Anytime we give any adult or child a drug, yes, they can have a rare idiosyncratic reaction that could be something very serious,” said Garcia of the Pima County Health Department.
“At the end of the day, an individual has to make a decision for herself or himself. Most parents, when given the right tools and the right information, end up opting for vaccination.
“I take my kids to get vaccinated, and I know there are these very rare potential issues. But the benefit to my kids and the benefit to children around my kids outweighs the drawbacks.”
Orient’s release also says that there’s a moral problem with vaccines because Merck’s version “is manufactured using material from aborted babies.”
Officials from Merck did not respond to requests from the Star to clarify Orient’s claim. But the Pharmaceutical Researchers and Manufacturers of America organization says vaccines do not contain human cells or tissue.
Human cell lines are used in the early stages of production of some vaccines because viruses need a living cell in which to grow, the group says. These cell lines were derived from fetal tissue more than 40 years ago. The same two cell lines are reproduced and used repeatedly so that no new fetal tissue is required in the ongoing production of vaccines, an organization backgrounder on the issue states.
“As with all viral vaccines, multiple purification steps ensure that cells are not in the final vaccine product,” the group stresses.
Orient says that the decline in deaths from measles, and the number of measles cases is not necessarily due to the vaccine but rather from other factors like better nutrition and health.
Before the introduction of the measles vaccine in 1963, about 450 measles deaths occurred per year in the U.S. The last time a measles death occurred in the U.S. was in 2005, though worldwide the disease continues to take a toll of more than 100,000 people per year, according to the World Health Organization.
In 2013, there were 145,700 measles deaths globally — about 400 deaths every day or 16 deaths every hour, WHO reports. Most of those deaths were of children under the age of 5. Prior to widespread vaccination around the world, measles caused about 2.6 million deaths per year worldwide, the global health organization says.
Jacobs noted that Orient, whose news release and opinions on vaccines have been widely circulating on social media, is not the only Arizonan speaking out against vaccines on a national stage.
Phoenix-area cardiologist Dr. Jack Wolfson has been on CNN recently advancing his anti-vaccine stance, and has called measles “benign.”
“I think both of them have been spreading a message that is clearly incorrect,” Jacobs said.
Contact Star health reporter Stephanie Innes at firstname.lastname@example.org or 573-4134. Star reporter Joe Ferguson contributed to this report.