Measles and the media: Are parents are being duped?

Something is in the air right now. There’s a strange mix of vaccine-preventable illness sweeping the country (measles) and a strange bump in media coverage for celebrities and vocal opponents to tested and recommended vaccine schedules. Part of me thought we might be done with that but pageviews, clicks, and views all sell.

My hope is the coincidence of coverage and outbreaks is just that, a coincidence. But as a mom, pediatrician, author and media reporter, the view from here is unsettling. We can’t prove that mishandled media coverage is changing the way we immunize our children (or at least I haven’t seen the data) and how parents protect them, but there are moments like this it feels it’s possible that trust is simply being eroded with this 24-hour online/TV/print news cycle. Parents might be vulnerable to bad medicine when gowned as good business. A couple of examples:

Recently, Kristin Cavallari (a wife to an NFL player and reality TV star) went on Fox News to discuss her career (and parenting) and ended up discussing her theories on a group of vaccine refusers and autism. Perhaps talking about medical theories is a really good model for accelerating a career?

Next up was Huffington Post where she dropped the bomb, “’I’ve read too many books’ to vaccinate my child.” I suspect she’s yet to read mine. Particularly chapter number 57 entitled “Measles In America.”

Then, Mother Jones published a lengthy expose of a pediatrician in Marin County, California who doesn’t immunize along the recommended and tested vaccine schedule. Although the reporter concludes the piece noting that the doctor “is playing a dangerous game,” the substance of the article discusses the tactics of this pediatrician going against the experts because of her hunch. The article likens her gorgeous waiting room to a Montessori classroom and provokes a sense that she is an inventive pediatrician, and one who really cares. Who wouldn’t want to see someone like that? Read this quote:

AT THE END of my visit to Pediatric Alternatives, I found that I liked Dr. Kenet Lansman. I could tell that she was bright and caring and open-minded, and most impressively, she tried to think creatively about how to keep her patients healthy.

What?! We get confused with all the attention paid to these outliers. We forget that about 9 out of 10 parents in the United States do immunize following their doctor’s recommended schedule. We forget not a single study finds an alternative schedule is any safer. We forget that unvaccinated and under-vaccinated kids are at risk for preventable disease. We get confused how stories like this make us feel and we ditch what the science tells us. We forget that when we immunize ourselves we protect our body, the children too small to be immunized and those at high risk for severe infection.

I feel parents are being duped. It’s really hard to know who is and who isn’t a good doctor; we all use different value systems to decide. We know in fact health care has yet to figure out exactly who is the best. So we patients are left to find a good match for ourselves when partnering with a doctor — sometimes it’s the wait times, the waiting room, the sense that someone really cares, the sense that they actually know what they’re talking about, or that the clinician comes recommended.  There is little transparency about how good the quality of care a doctor provides so we are left to feel it out ourselves.

Measles in Washington, California, New York

  • Here in Washington, we just learned of a new measles case on San Juan Island in an adult. Earlier this month, there was a California resident traveling through Seattle-Tacoma airport also infected with measles and we know Washington residents living in Whatcom County have also been infected secondary to an outbreak in Canada (see below).
  • NYC is having a large outbreak of measles. Over 20 cases reported and some that may have spread at health care facilities. An opinion piece in the New York Times discusses remembering how to fight measles infections suggesting “the measles vaccine is a victim of its own success.” Some NYC schools show dismal vaccination rates.
  • California has an outbreak of measles with more than 20 cases of active measles infections, the majority of cases (77%) in unvaccinated children.
  • British Columbia, Canada has had a large outbreak this month with over 300 cases, which health officials have blamed in part to an under-vaccinated school and  under-vaccinated church community.

Why does it take epidemics to grab our attention? What a miserable failure on our behalf (in health care and health reporting).

Measles info if you’re concerned about an exposure

  • The MMR vaccine protects against measles.  Read that link re: how it’s made, what it protects, and how to ensure you and your children are protected (have 2 doses of the shot). Over 99% of children and adults who get 2 doses of measles vaccine are protected for life. Experts describe the risk/benefit like this, “Because the measles vaccine has no serious permanent side effects, its benefits still clearly outweigh its risks.” It can cause pain at the injection site, fever in up to 10% of children who get it, rash, and rarely a decrease in platelets (blood cells that assist in blood clotting).
  • Measles is a highly contagious disease. You can get it simply by being in a room that a person with measles was in up to 2 hours before you. Measles causes red rash that appears as if it was poured over your child head to toe, a fever, runny nose, eye infections and most dangerous, it can cause life-threatening pneumonia. Rarely it can cause brain infections, too. Measles is serious: on average, about 1 to 3 out of every 1000 children who get measles will die from it.
  • Information from King County Public Health: Children should be vaccinated with two doses of the Measles Mumps Rubella (MMR) vaccine. The first dose should be at 12 through 15 months of age, and the second dose at four through six years of age. Infants traveling outside the United States can be vaccinated as early as six months but must receive the full two dose series beginning at 12 months of age; more information is available at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website. Adults should have at least one dose of measles vaccine, and two doses are recommended for international travelers, healthcare workers, and students in college, trade school, and other schools after high school. For help finding low cost health services, call the Family Health Hotline at 1-800-322-2588.

Wendy Sue Swanson is a pediatrician who blogs at Seattle Mama Doc. She is the author of Mama Doc Medicine: Finding Calm and Confidence in Parenting, Child Health, and Work-Life Balance.

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