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Editor's note: This is a follow-up to a story in the Tuesday, Feb. 11, issue, 'Examining vaccines and herd immunity'

INTERNET PHOTO - Opinions differ on whether vaccinations lead to autism.

Parents who choose not to vaccinate their children have a variety of reasons for doing so, or in this case, not doing so.

For some, it may be religious; for others, their child may have medical reasons. According to the Mayo Clinic Health System, the speculation that their child could develop autism is a common fear for having their child immunized, especially with the MMR (mumps, measles, rubella) vaccine.

With Exclusion Day just around the corner, this topic is also at a high peak — just like influenza season. Without getting into the weeds, it's a highly contentious and highly controversial subject. Mayo Clinic, Annals of Internal Medicine and Central Oregon professionals who have direct contact with vaccinations and patients provide some insight on the topic from a regional standpoint.

Health Service professionals dig into the topic

Karen Yeargain, communicable disease coordinator for the Crook County Health Department, emphasized that when only a small percentage of a community population is vaccinated, the risk of disease outbreak is greater than if a higher percentage is vaccinated. Of additional importance, the unvaccinated members of the population are not indirectly protected, and each community member has a higher risk of becoming infected.

Yeargain added that there are two ways to get immunity — natural immunity and vaccinations. She added that "natural" immunity consists of having the disease — which she said is not so natural, given the consequences of acquiring severe diseases.

As a case in point, Yeargain was part of the public health response to a measles outbreak in Central Oregon in the early 1990s.

"An unimmunized child traveled through Oregon to Washington while infectious, but before her symptoms were diagnosed," Yeargain said. "There were exposures and cases of the measles in Southern Oregon, Central Oregon, Northern Oregon and Washington before the outbreak was stopped. Lots of good public health work involved in that one."

She said several Central Oregon adults, including medical personnel, ended up with the measles. Of those adults, one experienced permanent vision damage and another experienced permanent partial hearing loss.

In addition to health department workers on the front lines, doctors in various health care fields deal with the topic up close.

Havilah Brodhead is a family nurse practitioner and owner of Hearthside Medicine Family Care in Bend. She provides full primary care, mainly for young families and pediatric patients.

She empathizes with the fears and reluctance to vaccinate children. Brodhead is a mother of a 2 1/2-year-old and a 4-year-old.

"Their fears are valid, regardless of where they stem from or what information led to those fears — and fears deserve to be addressed," said Brodhead. "I understand that parents just want to make sure they are doing the right thing for their children, not exposing them to unnecessary risks. I adopt a very holistic perspective of health and medicine and practice a blend of holistic and conventional medicine, known as integrative medicine."

She said her own family avoids pesticides, tries to eat only organic, avoids plastic for both health and environmental reasons, and limits the exposure to all medications and environmental toxins whenever possible.

"That being said, I choose to immunize my children fully and on schedule," Brodhead said. "I very much believe in the power of prevention. And having worked in the medical field now for over 15 years, I've seen far, far more illness from preventable diseases than I ever have with vaccination. I would much rather immunize my child than increase their odds of developing an infection that could then lead to multiple invasive interventions such as antibiotics, steroids, radiation from imaging, etc." 

In her practice, Brodhead invites parents and caregivers to come in for an hour-long vaccine consultation if they have any questions.

"During that hour, I let them lead, so I can learn what they've heard, experienced or read," she added. "If they say they've heard that vaccines cause autism, I like to hear what source they read."

(The concept that autism can be caused by immunizations has been debuked by science and medical fields).

"By genuinely listening to my patients, I find their fears often come from something a friend told them: 'My child was injured by vaccines,' or by something they read in a book like 'The Vaccine Friendly Plan' (a highly controversial book written by a physician with strong anti-vaccine ties), or from something they saw on Facebook."  

In her medical practice, Brodhead also cares for children with autism. Some of the children have been fully vaccinated, and some with autism have never had a single vaccine. 

"If parents specifically want to know about risks of autism, I can share with them that there are no studies to validate or prove a connection to autism in any way," she pointed out. "There is, however, plenty of emerging research that autism may be linked to infections/viral exposure in utero, nutrient deficiencies in utero such as iron, folic acid or vitamin D, genetics, environmental toxins and much more likely play a role.  I offer sound resources to explore immunizations in more depth, such as Children's Hospital of Pennsylvania Vaccine Education Center or 'NDs for Vaccines' online."

Dr. Jon Lutz, MD, is a board-certified Stanford-trained infectious disease internist. He has been practicing for more than 36 years. He cares for adults and adolescents and practices at Bend Memorial Clinic in Redmond and Bend. Lutz emphasized that his opinions were his own and not those of Summit Medical Group or Bend Memorial Clinic.

Lutz pointed out a recent Danish study published in the April 2019 issue of Annals of Internal Medicine. The study covered more than 650,000 children over more than 10 years. It found conclusively that there wasn't any evidence of a correlation between the MMR vaccination and autism. He believes it debunks the idea that MMR vaccines cause autism.

"It most emphatically does not, and our good Danish colleagues have proven that with systematic study of 650,000 Danish children," Lutz said.

Perspectives from the other side of vaccination

Eastern Oregon resident Rosalie Emerson, who is originally from Prineville, has lived with an immune disorder her entire adult life. She was diagnosed with lupus after her last child was born. She had all her vaccinations when she was young, as did her siblings. She contracted the Hong Kong flu when she was 12 years old and began having problems with her immune system when she was an adolescent. Upon her lupus diagnosis, her immunologist speculated that among many other factors, including the flu, her lupus was possibly a result of her childhood vaccinations.

Emerson has chosen to focus on natural medicine and prevention to treat her lupus. She did vaccinate her own children and is not opposed to Western medicine. She believes that it is important to be open to both natural and traditional medicine, depending on the circumstances.

She felt that it was important to share her story because, like herself, there are people who aren't candidates for some vaccinations, and she doesn't impose her opinion one way or another to influence others.

Looking at sources and the need for being your own researcher

Broadhead also said that if parents want to learn more about autism and fears that it may be caused by a vaccine connection specifically, she shares with them that the autism and vaccine myth originated from a flawed study by a doctor who had conflicting financial interests.

"The widespread fear that vaccines increase risk of autism originated with a 1997 study published by Andrew Wakefield, a British surgeon. The article was published in The Lancet, a prestigious medical journal, suggesting that the measles, mumps, rubella (MMR) vaccine was increasing autism in British children."

The paper has since been completely discredited, she said, due to serious procedural errors, undisclosed financial conflicts of interest, and ethical violations. Wakefield lost his medical license, and the paper was retracted from The Lancet.

Brodhead is especially concerned with the book "The Vaccine Friendly Plan," which she said is another large proponent of the autism myth, and the author is based out of Oregon.

"I can't tell you how many of my patients tell me they read that book and decided not to vaccinate," Broadhead said. 

In conclusion, she encourages parents to do good research.

"Be a good researcher and read the data from the other side," she said. "Same applies to vaccines. I read both sides so I can be best-informed."

Sidebar

Article sources

Mayo Clinic Health System

https://www.mayoclinichealthsystem.org/hometown-health/speaking-of-health/autism-vaccine-link-debunked

Articles recommended by Havilah Brodhead

Andrew Wakefield article

https://www.publichealth.org/public-awareness/understanding-vaccines/vaccine-myths-debunked/  

Many factors for increasing autism diagnosis rates:

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4045304/ 

https://www.spectrumnews.org/news/evolution-autism-diagnosis-explained/  

Information on most myths, most ingredients, risk/benefits, etc)

 https://www.chop.edu/centers-programs/vaccine-education-center/vaccines-and-other-conditions/vaccines-autism

A very brief review of the book by Dr. Paul Thomas, "The Vaccine-friendly plan."

https://vaxopedia.org/2017/11/08/the-vaccine-friendly-plan-book-review/


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