Vaccines: Controversy over Childhood Immunizations
Guest: Dr. Paul Darden – Pediatrics
Host: Dr. Linda Austin – Psychiatry
Dr. Linda Austin: I’m Dr. Linda Austin. I’m talking today with Dr. Paul Darden who is Professor of Pediatrics and has great experience in epidemiology and, in particular, in the science of vaccines. Dr. Darden, the whole issue of children getting vaccines, which once seemed like such a no-brainer thing to do, has become, in recent years, somewhat controversial, especially around the issue of autism. Can you tell us a little about the history of that controversy and, specifically, what the concerns have been?
Dr. Paul Darden: Thank you, Linda. It’s a real interesting controversy. Autism is a sever disease that affects young children. And with all disease of that sort, we always search for, why did they get it, what happened, and, of course, what could we do to help those children? We really don’t know what causes autism. And when you don’t know, sometimes you look at the things that happen commonly and, not unreasonably, search for those as the causes of that disease, and vaccines are very common. Almost everybody gets some of them. So, it is a natural thing to look at those as a possible cause of autism.
Back, oh, about 10 years ago, there was a researcher in England who actually was interested in bowel problems in autism, which, actually, are fairly common in autism. He did some biopsies of the intestines of children who had bowel problems and autism. When he did some experiments, he seemed to find measles antigen in those bowel biopsies. It really caused uproar because at the time, he attributed, and still does to this day, the measles vaccine as a cause of autism.
Now, the unfortunate thing about what he did, or the fortunate thing, I don’t know, he did not look at any sort of large sample. He didn’t look at any sort of comparison. He just looked for a very specific thing in the bowel of those children and then went on to say that this might be causal. Well, it’s unfortunate because it actually was very premature to have said that and now, we have lots of information from people that have looked at the measles vaccine alone, MMR, the combination vaccine, measles, mumps, and rubella, and we have found that, really, there is no association, that we’re able to find, between that vaccine and autism.
And, at least from my point of view, that sort of started the vaccine and autism controversy. And that actually continues to this day among some groups. Another thing that has been attributed to autism and vaccines is the presence of mercury in the vaccines. It’s a compound called thiomerisol. It’s used very commonly in medicine as a preservative and it contains some mercury as part of it, and it’s thought that it may be causal in autism. There have been extensive investigations here and in Europe and no one has ever been able to establish any sort of associations found between that.
But it is an interesting hypothesis. And, in fact, now, in the United States, childhood vaccines contain, essentially, no mercury. The thiomerisol has been removed from vaccines. Now, I say that with a little bit of a caveat, because some of the flu vaccines may contain some mercury. And some of the processes that produce vaccines may have had some thiomerisol in them, which may mean there are very small traces of thiomerisol that are still in the vaccines that we give. But, realistically, in measurable amounts, thiomerisol and mercury are gone from routine immunizations for children.
Dr. Linda Austin: So, despite the fact, then, that, it seems to me, just reading the lay literature, over and over again, the data does not support that there is a link between vaccines and autism. Has it had a measurable impact on the numbers of children who are getting vaccines?
Dr. Paul Darden: In the United States, it doesn’t seem to have had that affect, despite the fact that we hear about it a lot. However, remember, the original research that came out was in England. They saw a tremendous drop-off in the acceptance of the measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine and they, subsequently, had a measles epidemic that went of for years, and only ended about two years ago. So, they, in fact, saw the effect of it and saw the ill effects of not giving vaccines.
In the United States, you know, I’ve seen measles, and I’m sort of an older doctor. Most of the doctors I’ve trained have never seen a lot of these diseases, and parents, they’re even younger yet. They have not seen these diseases. And so, to some extent, they’re not real to them in a way. But, for most of these diseases, we know that we’re only keeping them at bay; they’re not gone. They will come back if we stop immunizing. And, if we have a significant drop-off in immunization, and that’s happened in England, it’s happened in Japan, it’s happened in other places around the world, you then have epidemics of these childhood diseases. And the reason we immunize against them is they’re not pretty. We actually had a measles epidemic in the United States back in 1989- 1991, somewhere on the order of tens of thousands of cases and over a 120 deaths from measles at that time.
Dr. Linda Austin: So, it can be a lethal illness?
Dr. Paul Darden: It can be lethal.
Dr. Linda Austin: For those who are too young to remember what measles is like, what is a serious case of measles like?
Dr. Paul Darden: Well, one of the things is, and we sometimes laugh about it, you know, sometimes people come in and say, we have a rash, is this measles? And, measles, even in the most benign case, the children are ill, and they’re very ill; they’re sick. We talk about it as; they have a cough, not a little cough. They have a sever cough. They have runny nose, runny eyes. They have a very confluent red rash, and they feel bad, cough, coryza. And we have ways of diagnosing it by looking in their mouths, looking for little white spots in their mouths. Measles is a rash disease in which the children are very ill. Now, almost always, they recover, but it can go on to cause pneumonia. It can go on to cause death.
Dr. Linda Austin: Mumps is another illness that is vaccinated against with the MMR.
Dr. Paul Darden: Yes.
Dr. Linda Austin: I actually have a friend who became sterile from having had mumps as a young adult, so that’s, potentially, very significant also. Describe a classic case of mumps.
Dr. Paul Darden: Mumps is disease that makes you look like a chipmunk. It’s actually a disease where your parotid glands swell, so you get a swelling at the margin of the jaw. It’s fever, peritonitis, and you get other glands affected, which is why men mostly, but even women, who have mumps after puberty can have their reproductive organs affected by it. Usually, it doesn’t result in sterility because it often affects only one side, not both, but it can result in sterility.
Dr. Linda Austin: How about rubella?
Dr. Paul Darden: Rubella is a mild disease, in a way. Rubella is a mild rash disease, lasts three of four days, a little bit of fever, a little bit of rash and then you get better, unless you’re pregnant. And, if you’re pregnant, rubella can infect the fetus, and then it can be a very severe disease. Rubellus and rubella syndrome, at one point, was the leading cause of deafness and one of the leading causes of mental retardation. But, it was not because of the rubella in children and adults. It was pregnant women. One of the reasons we immunize against rubella is to protect those unborn children.
Dr. Linda Austin: Dr. Darden, let’s pause there. There is so much more to talk about on this fascinating subject of vaccinations and these almost forgotten childhood illnesses, but let’s go on in another podcast.
Dr. Paul Darden: Thank you, Linda.
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