Parents must trust vaccines, experts say

Public health experts are struggling to understand how pertussis, or whooping cough, could be making a comeback in states like California, when vaccines, one of the most successful public health interventions in all of medicine, are readily available.

The answer, Paul Howard, the director of the Manhattan Institute’s Center for Medical Progress, and James R. Copland, the director of the Manhattan Institute’s Center for Legal Policy, say, lies in the relationship between parents and the vaccine, according to a letter published in the Wall Street Journal.

Howard and Copland believe that the problem exists because more and more parents, worried about trumped up or nonexistent side effects, are choosing not to vaccinate their children.

The calamity is further exacerbated by the Supreme Court, which is considering a lawsuit against the pertussis vaccine-maker Wyeth. Howard and Coplan say the suit, if successful, will increase the chances of further epidemics.

Currently, California is facing its worst outbreak of whooping cough since 1947. There were almost 8,000 cases and 10 deaths in California in 2010.

Howard and Copland write that these fears are completely wrong-headed and unfounded. They believe plaintiff’s lawyers, eager to seek jury awards, use junk science to further their aims and spread disinformation. Among the affluent, these lawyers have been particularly successful.

The anti-vaccine hysteria can be traced back, at least in part, to a 1974 British study that appeared to link the whooping cough vaccine to rare brain injuries. The study was debunked, but vaccination rates dropped throughout the world.

In the United States, a television documentary featuring Lea Thompson called “Vaccine Roulette” stoked fears and garnered an Emmy. Although it was scientifically false, the film provoked hysteria, congressional inquiries and a rash of lawsuits. The damages in these cases were so severe that the price of the vaccine skyrocketed, not to come down until the creation of the Vaccine Injury Compensation Program, Howard and Copland write.

Howard and Copland say that the recent outbreak of whooping cough has been terrible, but claim it could become much worse as the population’s overall immunity declines. Convincing parents to vaccinate their children is a public health imperative, they say, and they hope the Supreme Court will recognize that.