Dr. Bob Sears deserves blame for declining vaccination rates


Measles is on its way to an all time high.

In 2000, measles was eliminated (meaning some travelers from areas with low vaccine penetration might arrive in the U.S. with the disease, but no case came from U.S.), but has been slowly creeping back. Since 2008, this has been more than a trickle.

Let’s put the important goal of measles elimination in perspective. Before 1963, meaning before there was a measles vaccination program, 3-4 million Americans a year caught measles, 48,000 were hospitalized, 1,000 developed a chronic disability, and 400 died. Measles is not a benign disease that just causes a “little rash.” Vaccine programs aren’t launched for benign diseases.

In 1998, Dr. Wakefield published his now well-discredited piece that erroneously linked autism to the MMR vaccine. This falsified paper was seized upon by the likes of Jenny McCarthy, Dr. Mercola, and Dr. Bob (pediatrician and author of The Vaccine Book).

While Ms. McCarthy did get a big piece of the Suzanne Somers microphone owing to her looks, brassy press-friendly sound bites, and Oprah falling hook line and sinker for her warrior mom gig, I do wonder how much impact McCarthy herself had on the average parent. She probably made many think and she certainly got way too much press and if all that coverage even gave a sliver of a doubt to vaccine safety it might have made even more wonder.

However, the more I talk and tweet and post about health subjects I find that most people don’t make medical decisions based on celebrity opinions. It might cause them to question and lead them to gather more information, but I think it’s unlikely that McCarthy herself is the true vector for the resurgence of measles. Most people would likely turn to a doctor for confirmation of their fears and they found that in Dr. Bob Sears.

Dr. “No one had died of measles in the US in over 10 years” Sears published his evidence-baseless Vaccine Book in 2007 and in 2008 is when the number of measles cases bumped big time. About measles Dr. Bob writes, “I also warn not to share their fears with their neighbors, because if too many people avoid the MMR, we’ll likely see the diseases increase significantly.” Prescient, no?

It’s not Jenny McCarthy that parents quote, it’s Dr. Bob. It’s his book they clutch when they come into the office, not her’s or Wakefield’s. It’s his alternative or selective vaccine schedule they use, not McCarthy’s or Wakefield’s. Just look at the reviews on Amazon, it is adored by those who truly think that Dr. Bob has stumbled upon the truth as opposed to publishing a fear-mongering compilation of medical gibberish (it’s not just autism that parents have to worry about, vaccines could spread mad cow disease too!). The Vaccine Book reveals the author’s inability to understand epidemiologic data, interpret articles correctly, and his complete dismissal of public health as an important goal. It would be dismissed as simply laughable if it weren’t so well read (by 2009 the book had sold over 40,000 copies).

I’m not saying Jenny McCarthy is blameless, but a medical doctor should know better. Or care that his words might impact people. Or hopefully both.

Jennifer Gunter is an obstetrician-gynecologist and author of The Preemie Primer. She blogs at her self-titled site, Dr. Jen Gunter.

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