Deadly Choices

How the Anti-Vaccine Movement Threatens Us All, Paul A. Offit, M.D., Basic Books.

Measles, mumps, whooping cough, and Hib meningitis: All virtually eliminated thanks to vaccines, and all making a comeback thanks to parents not getting their children vaccinated. The problem isn’t that parents can’t afford vaccines or don’t have access to medical care. The problem is that mothers and fathers are afraid that vaccines contain dangerous additives, or that vaccines cause autism, diabetes, multiple sclerosis or attention deficit disorder. “Deadly Choices” is the story of how parents became more frightened of vaccines than the life-threatening infections and diseases they prevent.

Dr. Offit traces the birth of the American anti-vaccine movement to April 19, 1982, the day a one-hour TV documentary called DPT Vaccine Roulette aired on NBC-TV’s Washington, D.C. affiliate. In the decades since, critics have blamed vaccines for everything from learning disabilities to chronic fatigue syndrome. Yet as Dr. Offit chronicles, scientific studies have not demonstrated that the ailments in question are causally associated with vaccines. (He does, however, reveal how many individuals promoting these theories have had a financial incentive to create controversy and mislead the public.)

As for the one vaccine that did do harm—the oral polio vaccine, which on rare occasions caused paralytic polio before it was discontinued in the 1990s—Dr. Offit applauds the efforts of citizen-activist John Salamone, who founded an organization that helped change polio-vaccine policy in the U.S. after his son, David, suffered crippling side effects. But the author takes issue with celebrities—especially Jenny McCarthy, Jim Carrey, and Bill Maher—who “misinform the public about vaccines, putting children at unnecessary risk.” And he devotes an entire chapter (“Dr. Bob”) to addressing the arguments of Robert Sears (author of “The Vaccine Book: Making the Right Decision for Your Child”), who has somehow earned the trust of parents “because he doesn’t have expertise in vaccine science,” writes Dr. Offit.

In the end, Dr. Offit—Chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases and Director of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia—reviews potential solutions to the problem of unvaccinated children, but most seem destined to fail unless the public learns to trust the vaccine industry, hardly unreasonable when one considers that “[a]t no time in history has a pharmaceutical company ever engaged in illicit marketing practices for vaccines [emphasis added],” highlights Dr. Offit. “If we are to get past the constant barrage of misinformation based on mistrust, we have to set aside our cynicism about those who test, license, recommend, and promote vaccines,” he concludes. “Only then will we survive this detour—a detour that has caused far too many children to suffer needlessly.”