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Action News 6 buries the lead

February 4th, 2009 · 8 Comments · Miseducation, Urban legend

Philadelphia’s Action News 6 covered all the bases when reporting on parents who deliberately expose their children to a potentially dangerous disease via chicken pox parties. Cue well-meaning but dangerously misinformed mother. Quote doctors who set the record straight. Close with mom’s opposing view. It’s a wrap.

What’s wrong with this picture?

The piece opens with “Carrie”, a pseudonymous parent more concerned with privacy than flesh eating bacteria.

“My 7-year-old daughter has been to six of these parties,” said Carrie, who also runs an online forum that helps parents organize and find parties in their neighborhoods. “Unfortunately, we have not caught the pox yet, but I’m keeping my eye out for more parties.”

Carrie, who also believes that vaccines cause autism,  explains why it’s better to “catch the disease naturally” than succumb to medical experts with their “diplomas” and their “knowledge”.

“When I found out that children require booster shots, what that said to me was that there is no prolonged effect and that the vaccine doesn’t work in the long term,” Carrie said. “If it did, there would be no need for multiple shots.

“In my mind, that puts children at greater risk because they get vaccinated when they’re young and if, for some reason, they don’t get the booster shot or the booster shot isn’t effective, the virus will be significantly more dangerous as they get older,” she said.

It’s only after we hear from the concerned parent that Action News 6 introduces us to the experts. First we hear from Dr. Lou Cooper, a former president of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

“I’m aghast at the thought of these parties,” said Dr. Louis Cooper, a spokesman for the Infectious Disease Society of America and a professor emeritus of pediatrics at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York.

“I deeply regret that parents who are trying to do the right thing just don’t get it,” Cooper said. “The fact is that they’re right, chickenpox for most children is a mild illness. But when you see children who have the misfortune of one of the complications that are possible, you never forget it.”

Cooper said that he has seen children contract conditions as serious as encephalitis, a brain infection, and has even had young patients die from the virus after developing flesh-eating bacteria.

“The child does not need to be immune-deficient or malnourished to have these complications,” said Cooper, who recommends that all parents vaccinate their children against the virus. “It can be an ordinary healthy child, it’s Russian roulette.”

Next we hear from Dr. Paul Offit, a widely-quoted infectious disease expert from the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

The thinking many parents have is that the natural infection is more likely to induce higher levels of antibodies and longer-lasting immunity than vaccines,” Offit said. “That’s generally true but the problem is if you make that choice you are also taking the risk of a natural infection, which can mean hospitalization and sometimes death.”

Researchers now say the chickenpox vaccine has slashed the occurrence of the disease in children by 90 percent but still worry that parents like Carrie are preventing the virus from disappearing all together.

Offit believes that if the chickenpox vaccine becomes as widely used as the measles vaccine was back in 1963, chickenpox would go the way of the measles: away.

“When we introduced the measles vaccine, which is another virus that gets worse for patients as they get older, in 1963, we dramatically reduced the instance of measles,” Offit said. “That is what will happen here with chickenpox.”

Pretty tough stuff coming from top experts in the field. So why aren’t their comments in the lead? A couple thoughts come to mind.

First, the reporter doesn’t understand that chicken pox, despite the wacky name, is dangerous. Sure, most kids suffer without complications, and people who didn’t die from complications of varicella might tell you who that chicken pox was no biggie back then. But the fact is, this is a contagious disease with potentially serious consequences. Would Action News 6 treat the story any differently if parents were holding polio parties? You betcha.

A second thought is that Action News 6 didn’t want to upset the mothers of Philadelphia. Lots of women I’m sure identify with “Carrie”, and have heard about chicken pox parties. Best not to upset the viewers too badly. It’s one thing to hear about Philadelphia gang wars and young lives cut short by violence. It’s another to find out what you thought you knew about your child’s health and well being was all wrong. Best to break it to them slowly.

Finally, we come to the big finish – “Carrie” rebuts the experts.

“When we introduced the measles vaccine, which is another virus that gets worse for patients as they get older, in 1963, we dramatically reduced the instance of measles,” Offit said. “That is what will happen here with chickenpox.”

But Carrie doesn’t agree. She says that the fact that some children still get the virus despite being vaccinated is evidence that chickenpox will never disappear completely.

“Something like this will continually mutate and potentially be worse than before,” Carrie said. “Kind of the way the overuse of antibiotics has happened.”

As for what doctors say about how parents who don’t vaccinate their children might be putting them at increased risk, Carrie is unconvinced.

“Everything you do every day puts my child at risk,” she said. “Putting her in a car puts her at risk.

“We can all only make the decisions that are right for our families, and this is what happens to be right for my family at this moment in time.”

No vaccine is 100% effective, which is why herd immunity is so important. Vaccines helped eradicate smallpox, and  decrease polio cases to about 1,600 cases a year. Measles was on track for eradication in Europe until some parents thought they knew better than the immunologists and started withholding the MMR vaccine from their children.

“Carrie” is right about one thing – everything in life involves risk. When a news outlet reflexively seeks balance between two points of view, when the evidence overwhelmingly points to only one side being right, that news outlet puts everyone at risk.

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8 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Do'C // Feb 4, 2009 at 10:41 pm

    “We can all only make the decisions that are right for our families, and this is what happens to be right for my family at this moment in time.”

    Incorrect Carrie. Everone can make decisions that affect (benefit, or add risk for) the children the children of others.

  • 2 mike stanton // Feb 5, 2009 at 3:34 pm

    “Finally, we come to the big finish – “Carrie” rebuts the experts.”

    Spot on ANB! Just the idea that a parent’s feelings are any counter for the considered opinion of a medical expert with years of experience is laughable. So, instead of a story about the health danger presented by these poxy parties we are back with so-called “balanced” journalism and one parent trumping two experts!

  • 3 The Mother Tongue // Feb 5, 2009 at 3:57 pm

    Oh, that is a horrendous news piece. Putting Carrie’s words at the bottom makes it seem like she’s right, or that her gut instinct is equally valid to the knowledge of trained scientists. Ghastly.

    It was nice to talk to you today at the teleconference with Dr. Brown. Love your blog, keep up the good work!

  • 4 autblog // Feb 5, 2009 at 6:36 pm

    Thanks, Heather! That was a great call. Dr. Brown is a terrific spokesperson.

  • 5 Raymon // Feb 7, 2009 at 4:11 pm

    Dr. Offit can not be considered as an expert. He manufactures vaccines and works with Vaccines manufacturers, so there is a lot of “conflict of interest”. I would not listen to any advice he has to give, he can not be trusted. I was born in Asia, 5 brother in family. My cousins were 12. We all acquired chicken pox naturally. We were rested and never ever required the vaccines. None of us had ever allergies or Asthma. Look at the children today, they pretty all have Asthma and allergies. Why, no body knows. But we could hope the experts get back to their benches and figure that one out. They sell vaccines like it was a candy. They have another 15 different vaccines in the pipeline. This is a big seller for GSK, MERCK, Sanofi. Just GSK reported sells of 2.5 billion vaccine. They had a net profit of 19 Billion dollars. Vaccine sell and money making is huge and these experts have forgotten their first duty of protecting children. They keep bashing That guy Wakefield, because he researched something that was never meant to be researched.

  • 6 autblog // Feb 7, 2009 at 4:17 pm

    Funny you should mention Dr. Wakefield. Tomorrow’s Times of London says he fabricated the data in his 1998 study. That’s not surprising – the Hornig study from last September replicated Wakefield’s study, and found no support for an association between MMR and autism. There are now 24 studies, possibly more, that have reached similar conclusions. I think it’s time to call Wakefield what he is.

  • 7 Chris // Feb 8, 2009 at 1:48 am

    Raymon says “Dr. Offit can not be considered as an expert. He manufactures vaccines ”

    Where? In his bathtub?

    And he continued “We all acquired chicken pox naturally.”

    Great! So you are now eligible to get shingles when you are older. You never really fully recover from the virus, it goes dormant only to come back painfully later when you are under stress. The best way to avoid shingles is to avoid getting chicken pox, usually by a vaccine. Don’t you feel smart now!

  • 8 Prometheus // Feb 9, 2009 at 5:24 pm

    Raymon sates:

    None of us had ever allergies or Asthma. Look at the children today, they pretty all have Asthma and allergies. Why, no body knows.

    True enough, Raymon, but we do know it’s not due to the chickenpox vaccine, since the trend toward higher prevalence of asthma and allergies began long before that vaccine was introduced.

    Prometheus

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