On Wednesday April 8th, 2015, NBC aired an episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit entitled “Granting Immunity” which took the anti-vaccine movement head on. A Jenny McCarthy-look-alike fictional mother “Trudy” falsified immunization records for her son Gabriel with her pediatrician stating, “The risks of vaccination outweigh the benefits. When Gabriel was born, I tried to get a medical or a religious exemption, but I couldn’t get either one.” Trudy’s son Gabriel is dubbed “Patient Zero” by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) investigators in a string of over 50 cases of measles which resulted around NYC as a result of his lack of immunity to measles during a recent trip to the Philippines. When Trudy is charged with reckless endangerment, she states on the stand that she watched her nephew slowly change after each dose of the MMR vaccine and this is why she chose not to vaccine her own son Gabriel.
On April 28, 2009 Law & Order: Special Victims Unit also aired an episode about measles entitled "Selfish." Guest star Hilary Duff plays young mother Ashlee Walker and she hides the dead body of her two year old daughter Sierra when she thinks she killed her but the medical examiner determines that the cause of death was actually due to measles which Sierra contracted from an unvaccinated child at the playground. Monica Stewart, the mother who stated the measles outbreak by forgoing the necessary vaccine schedule for her children is brought up on charges for young Sierra's death but is found not guilty since she had a religious belief against vaccines. It was determined that she really had a philosophical belief against vaccines but was hiding behind the religious exemption loophole.
These episodes raise an important issue through the characters of Trudy and Monica: the issue that parents still believe that autism is the result of the MMR vaccine. Despite the mountains of evidence in support of this important childhood vaccine series, parents still reference one "study." The fact is that the only “study” which has ever been rumored to have "suggested" such a link (right in that very study it states that no link was found between autism and MMR) was retracted in 2000, yet parents still buy into the belief that vaccines do anything except ensure the sanctity of public health and keep people safe.
In 1998, a study was published in the British medical journal The Lancet which was rumored and presented by the media as having "proved" a link between autism and the MMR vaccine. The study, led by Andrew Wakefield, is widely cited by the anti-vaccine movement as "evidence" of how "the risks far outweigh the benefits of vaccines," as fictional mom Trudy says in the episode. There are many problems with this "study," most notably the fact that it states right within the study that no link was found between autism and the MMR vaccine. Herlihy and Hagood also note some major problems with using this small "study" to justify forgoing important medical treatment including the fact that the study included a small sample size of 12 subjects and the fact that the subjects never had blood tests to verify that they had even received the MMR vaccine in the first place. The many problems with this study led to eleven of the original coauthors rescinding their involvement with the study and the remaining two coauthors losing their medical licenses. Including Andrew Wakefield. Andrew Wakefield has no medical license and continues to use his flawed study to encourage parents to forgo the recommended vaccine schedule. And parents are listening.
Public health is everyone's concern and following the recommended vaccine schedule is the most important thing we can do to keep our population safe. There has never been a single study proving any link between the MMR vaccine and autism. In fact, here is a list of 75 studies which have demonstrated that vaccines are safe, effective and save lives.
The development of vaccines is the single most important human innovation, even more important than industry, than cars, than the Internet. Vaccines are so important because they are the only protection against preventable illness, such as measles, pertussis and smallpox, which have been responsible for massive public health outbreaks and wiping out entire families. Until vaccines, families lived in constant fear that their children would succumb to illness. As Herlihy and Hagood note in their book, “Your Baby’s Best Shot: Why Vaccines are Safe and Save Lives,” prior to the mass availability of vaccines, losing a child to illnesses such as diphtheria, measles and smallpox was so common that the phrase “a real mother” was coined to describe the battles, profound fears and constant child death which mothers faced in the midst of these public health outbreaks. Today, the chance of losing your child to a preventable illness should be slim to none when herd immunity is maintained, but the conscious choice on the part of parents across this country to forgo the necessary vaccine schedule with no good reason at all is violating that herd immunity for all.
Whether you are a nurse, work in health care, a parent or just a human being, public health affects you and keeps you safe. It is our duty as members of this society to fight for public health every chance we can and to celebrate that we no longer fear the wipeout of entire neighborhoods due to illness thanks to vaccines. Encourage every parent you know to vaccinate their children. Get your flu shot annually. And most importantly, never forget that public health is everybody's responsibility.
-Angela Quinn, BSN, RN- Nurses Who Vaccinate Advocacy Director, Social Media & Educational Outreach Coordinator