Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Program note: "Frontline" on PBS looks at "Vaccine War" in April 27 show

The The New York Times review:

“The Vaccine War,” a look at the debate that has been raging for years over the safety of, and necessity for, childhood vaccinations, has only a few moments that might be illuminating to those who have been following this now familiar controversy.

One comes near the end of the program, a “Frontline” report April 27 on PBS. Dr. Jim Shames, a public health official in Jackson County, Ore., is having a discussion — a calm, civilized discussion, lovely to see in this age and on this hot-button topic — with some women who have chosen not to vaccinate their children.

He asks them whether they feel any broader responsibility to the community. For instance, what if their unvaccinated child contracted a disease and then passed it on to a vulnerable newborn too young to have been vaccinated yet? And the women, though staying firm in their beliefs, seem to get just a little bit stuttery, as if confronting something they didn’t really want to think about.

Much of the program is taken up with a rehashing of how the battle lines came to be drawn on this issue: suspicions by parents when autism and other problems seem to descend on their children right after vaccination; the now discredited 1998 research paper published by The Lancet linking a particular vaccine to autism; celebrity advocacy by Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carrey, who are concerned that vaccines cause harm; scientific studies from around the world finding that they don’t.

The shouting continues, occasionally in demonstrations, but 24 hours a day on the Internet. And the Internet, as the program points out, is the reason that vaccines will never be fully exonerated, no matter how many studies clear them.

“The original myths are still there, and they’re hard to counteract,” Dr. Cynthia Cristofani, a pediatric specialist in Oregon, says. “Conspiracy theories tend to be popular, and it’s hard to undo that kind of damage.”

Whichever side is right, that moment between Dr. Shames and the mothers who don’t have their children vaccinated reveals that beneath the heated do-they-or-don’t-they words about vaccines themselves, there’s a more delicate question that no scientific study can answer. It involves whether parents’ rights to make choices about their children trump the needs of the community. You reach the end of this program wishing for a little less of what you already knew and a little more of the thoughtful discussion between Dr. Shames and the mothers on this important point.