Deadly Choices

How the Anti-Vaccine Movement
Threatens Us All

By Paul A. Offit

Basic Books. 270 pp. $27.50

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Reviewed by Rachel K. Sobel


The history of medicine is full of medical theories upended.

In the early 1800s, people thought bad odors or "miasma" caused diseases. Then, Robert Koch came along and proved that it was germs, not fumes, that were to blame. In the mid-20th century, margarine was our go-to spread, but then research about trans fats made us understand why olive oil and other unsaturated fats were better.

Now at the turn of this century, a small but vocal group of anti-vaccine activists has linked vaccines with all sorts of maladies, including autism and brain damage. They have led well-meaning parents to delay or stop their children from getting life-saving vaccinations.

These false claims and dangerous fears can definitively be put to rest with the publication of Paul A. Offit's Deadly Choices: How the Anti-Vaccine Movement Threatens Us All. Here, Philadelphia's own physician-scientist, chief of the division of infectious disease at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, writes a convincing exposé of the anti-vaccine movement.

Offit's opening chapter puts us in the middle of a horror movie-like scene, where new epidemics lurk amid unknowing families.

As the number of unvaccinated children since 1991 has doubled, Offit notes how the diseases from our grandparents' time have reemerged: a measles outbreak in 2008 in California, a Hemophilus influenzae type b (Hib) meningitis outbreak in Minnesota in 2009, and a mumps outbreak in 2009 in New Jersey, to name a few.

This work is a serious and accessible account about how the modern anti-vaccine movement started, who the main players have been, and where it went astray. As a mother of two children, I wish it were part of the goodie bag given to new moms after delivery; it answers any question about the safety of vaccines one might have. As a physician, I am impressed by the elegant way that Offit dissects each anti-vaccine hypothesis, and explains what is false.

Take the theory set forth by journalist Lea Thompson in her NBC documentary DTP: Vaccine Roulette, which launched the modern anti-vaccine movement in 1982. Offit painstakingly picks apart Thompson's reporting that pertussis vaccine, part of the DTP (diptheria, tetanus and pertussis vaccine), causes epilepsy and brain damage.

First, it didn't make biological sense that the DTP vaccine could cause brain damage, as Thompson claimed by showing sorrowful footage of drooling teenagers in wheelchairs, with parents retelling their stories of having their children vaccinated. Sure, the vaccine contained "endotoxins," a part of the surface of the pertussis bacteria, which might be easy for demagogues to spin as harmful to a layperson.

But then it would follow that a child who suffered brain damage from these toxins would have to endure fever and dangerously low blood pressure - shock. The vaccine didn't do that.

Not only was there a lack of plausible biological explanation, there was only one epidemiologic study to support the link and 10 that refuted it. No one had been able to replicate that one study's findings. That's because the study itself was flawed, says Offit. Of seven children purported to have developed brain damage within a week of receiving the DTP vaccine, three had been incorrectly labeled as brain damaged even though they were normal and three others had suffered viral infections and one Reye's syndrome (a severe neurological condition caused by aspirin, not vaccines).

Offit convincingly takes down every other far-fetched anti-vaccine premise, including the links between the pneumococcal vaccine and diabetes; the Hib vaccine and diabetes; the Hepatitis B vaccine and multiple sclerosis; and measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine (MMR) and autism.

Most interesting is the case of MMR and autism, whose story begins with a now discredited surgeon, Andrew Wakefield, who published a paper in The Lancet in 1998. He implicated the measles part of the vaccine as causing an inflammatory response in the gut, which then allowed the virus particles to leak out and travel to the brain to cause autism. A worldwide panic ensued, vaccine use dropped, and outbreaks of measles popped up in the United Kingdom and Ireland.

Meanwhile, no one could replicate this study. After examining and comparing hundreds of thousands of children who had or hadn't received MMR, mainstream scientists concluded that MMR did not cause autism. No wonder they couldn't repeat his findings: A personal injury lawyer representing several of the children in the study had given Wakefield about $800,000 to perform the study and thus "launder legal claims through a medical journal," Offit says.

One of the leading faces of the autism-vaccine movement is Jenny McCarthy. Here Offit deftly lets us draw our own conclusions about the ex-Playboy playmate and potty-mouthed angry mom. He pulls a quote from her video describing how to treat autism: "If you're unsure about dosage, ask your pediatrician; but most of the time they don't know anything. So I would say ask someone at Kirkman," a lab that makes one of her favored vitamins. We are left thinking how sad and perilous it is for a mother who mourns her child's autism to take it out on vaccines and endanger so many other children.

But this isn't a one-sided rah-rah show for vaccines. Offit thoughtfully acknowledges the known side effects of vaccines. He also pauses to explain some of the major obstacles encountered by vaccine scientists. One of the two early polio vaccines was made of live virus and actually had the rare effect of causing polio, occurring once in 2.5 million doses, which amounted to six to eight children per year. A switch was made to the inactivated polio vaccine after John Salamone - the father of a boy who received the live vaccine and became paralyzed from the waist down - went to Capitol Hill and persuaded legislators to change policy to the safer vaccine.

Offit's arguments are piercing and unrelenting, yet his softer side comes through, too. Offit's primary motivation is clearly the health of children. He writes to save children such as Julianna Flint. At 15 months old, Flint contracted Hib meningitis, even though she had been vaccinated. Later it was discovered that Flint had an immune system defect, which is why she developed the infection. But why was Hib floating around Minnesota anyway? The percentage of children whose parents refused the vaccine had increased sixfold in the previous few years.

Conspiracy theories about Offit and scientists like him abound. But the conspirators can step back and consider where Offit is coming from with this book. All profits go to the Autism Science Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to finding the biological triggers of autism and its most effective therapeutic interventions.

Rachel K. Sobel, M.D., wrote a column for The Inquirer during her ophthalmology residency and is currently a staff physician at Wills Eye Institute. Contact her at rachelkimsobel@gmail.com.