Whenever one of her patients or a parent of a child refuses immunization shots, Dr. Virginia Witt, who practices family medicine in Hoboken, tells them a story about her own life, about how she was going to get her son an immunization shot against diseases affecting the human immune system, and the doctor she’d gone to had run out of vaccines.
“I got busy, and I never followed it up,” she said last week during an interview. “Seven weeks later, my son was rushed to the hospital with a 50 percent chance he wasn’t going to live.”
While he did survive the ordeal, he still suffers learning disabilities from complications that arose in transporting him to the hospital, and Dr. Witt has lived with the guilt ever since.
While this might not have been the motivation for her to change careers and become a doctor, Dr. Witt has become a strong advocate for immunization shots, saying that arguments against them are based on misinformation and fear.
“We were making a lot of progress against these diseases, but now they are on the rise again.” –Dr. Virginia Witt
Many people are using a loophole in national health law that allows people to avoid giving their children immunizations because of religious reasons.
“In many cases, it is not because of religious reasons,” Dr. Witt said, “it is because they are frightened and they believe the ton of information available on the internet about the dangers of immunization.”
While there is a widespread fear of immunization with claims against every kind of shot – from measles to flu shots, most of the fear was generated out of one case when a doctor in Great Britain published a study suggesting there is a link between measles vaccinations and autism. The study was later found to have been flawed.
Study published in England
In 1998, Dr. Andrew Wakefield, a British gastroenterologist, and his associates published a paper in the British medical journal “The Lancet” suggesting that the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine might cause symptoms associated with autism. In England, thousands of parents refused to let their children be vaccinated, resulting in hundreds of hospitalized children and three deaths.
“What was later learned,” Dr. Witt said, “is that he went into the study looking for a connection, and it has since been determined that he altered his findings to come up with that conclusion. There are a number of possible causes of autism, but there is no known link to immunization.”
In fact, 10 out of the 13 authors of the Wakefield study have since withdrawn their support for the study.
“The Lancet” – one of the most respected medical publications in England – retracted Wakefield's entire study after an independent government review concluded that he had acted "dishonestly and irresponsibly" in conducting his research, and that he was working as a private consultant for attorneys representing parents who had cases against the manufacturers of the vaccine. This eventually led to Wakefield being banned from practicing medicine in England.
But the harm was done, Dr. Witt said.
Root of it all
The Wakefield study became the root of distrust for all vaccines, and has caused a resurgence of childhood and other diseases many doctors believed were on their way to being wiped out.
“There are more cases of whooping cough today than when I was born,” Dr. Witt said.
Northern New Jersey has seen a surge of these over the last few years, according to the Essex Metro Immunization Coalition, a group of state and local health officials seeking to increase immunization rates by urging all New Jersey residents, adults and children alike, to check with their doctors to make sure they have received all necessary vaccines to date.
Of the eight cases of whooping cough – a highly contagious bacterial respiratory infection also known as pertussis – in Hunterdon County, several of the kids are known not to have been vaccinated at all, and others did not receive the complete series of immunizations appropriate for their age.
This outbreak is driving officials to remind parents to double-check that their children and adolescents are age-appropriately immunized, and that they, too, are fully vaccinated.
“There are too many illnesses that we cannot avoid for us to ignore the ones we can help prevent,” said Dr. David Bendich, president of the Essex Metro Immunization Coalition. “Pertussis is just one of several, including measles and mumps, that do not have to exist. Vaccines are responsible for virtually eliminating diseases such as polio; we just have to make sure we stay up-to-date with all of our immunizations and not wait for these scary reminders.”
Hunterdon County faced a similar spread of pertussis in 2009, when 20 cases were confirmed. More recently, a mumps outbreak in April 2010 sickened over 1,500 people in the New York and New Jersey area. A couple of measles cases in the state last year sounded alarms, in fear of an outbreak.
These recent cases can be partially due to the fact that the state trails all but one in estimated vaccination coverage in children ages 19 to 35 months. According to the most recent statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only 67 percent of New Jersey residents have received their recommended vaccines.
Dr. Witt said it is difficult to overcome the fear generated by rumor and the internet, even when prestigious medical journals retract the information that was published.
Polio, small pox, and the dozens of other diseases against which children and some adults are immunized for are being questioned, when they have already proven to have saved lives.
“Everybody is taking one article and painting all immunizations [as bad],” Dr. Witt said, “and as it turned out, that one article was wrong.”
Part of the problem is that autism is poorly understood.
“We have a lot of theories as to what causes it, but science can’t tell us and many parents are looking for a reason, even it is irrational,” she said.
Of course, there is some risk associated with immunization in regards to the diseases that they are designed to guard against, such as risk of infection, but it is such a small risk that medical professionals believe that being immunized against disease is better than the risk of getting the disease.
“Any time you break the skin even for a shot of Novocain, there is a risk, but the risk is small,” Dr. Witt said. “One in 100 people died from whooping cough.”
Seniors and flu
Unimmunized babies face a host of dangerous and life threatening diseases, from diphtheria and tetanus to meningitis, and Hepatitis A and B, not to mention polio – all of which might be preventable through immunization. Senior citizens risk death by not getting an immunization against influenza.
And the cost should not be a factor, since nearly every insurance company pays for these. If not, there are state and federal programs that provide for children who cannot afford to be immunized.
“We were making a lot of progress against these diseases, but now they are on the rise again,” Dr. Witt said. “People should not make these decisions based on emotion. Fear is the reason they don’t vaccinate. But I try to motivate my patients by the fear of what happens if they get the disease.”