Dr. Nancy Snyderman is an unabashed defender of vaccines and, as medical editor for NBC News, a highly visible advocate for evidence-based medicine. Her zealous, no-nonsense attacks on anti-vaccine activists stand out from the lackluster and clueless reporting of others in the news and entertainment media. She rightly pointed out, for instance, that among bona-fide medical experts there is no controversy regarding vaccines and autism. That confrontation with Matt Lauer, which you can watch here, alerted science writers across the country that they were being snookered by shady anti-vaccine spokespersons who insisted the jury was still out.
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Snyderman was back to promoting vaccines on the Today Show this morning, as the topic turned to California’s pertussis outbreak. As usual she came out swinging, laying the blame for six infant deaths and hundreds of hospitalizations on parents who delay or withhold vaccines. Unfortunately, Snyderman did not get all of her facts straight when she said “last year we saw children die of measles”, and it was clear from the context she was referring to the US. There is no record of a measles-related death in the US in 2009.
This is not to say measles is a childhood right of passage, leading to nothing more serious than a week away from school and an ice cream headache, as any anti-vaccine activists will tell you. Measles can also cause permanent brain damage and blindness. Just because most cases resolve themselves with no sequelae doesn’t mean measles is harmless. A major outbreak 20 years ago in the northeast US killed 130. And children died in the US last year from Hib (haemophilus influenza type B), which is probably what Snyderman meant to say. At 3:25 mark she says “Last year in Minnesota and in Philadelphia children died of measles.”
Hib killed an infant in Minnesota in Jan., 2009. Two children died in Philadelphia that same year. Before a vaccine became available, about 600 children died of Hib each year in the US. In 2009, the death toll was five.
But by getting her facts wrong, Snyderman opens herself to more attacks by anti-vaccine activists who have been portraying her for years as an uniformed fear monger. Which she isn’t. A little flustered maybe, but definitely better informed than the people who think measles is harmless, or that six dead infants are just collateral damage in Jenny McCarthy’s shameless climb off the Hollywood D-list.