Debunked studies have staying power

Held by his mother, this infant is distracted by a nurse as he receives an intramuscular immunization in his left thigh muscle. Photo by  James Gathany
Held by his mother, this infant is distracted by a nurse as he receives an intramuscular immunization in his left thigh muscle.
Photo by James Gathany

Why do some people stubbornly believe that vaccinations and autism are linked, even though such a connection was scientifically debunked a dozen years ago?

Like antibiotic resistant bacteria, bad science sometimes refuses to die.

Ivan Oransky, who writes for Retraction Watch, a blog which reports on retracted medical and scientific studies, points to two reasons he believes explain why disputed studies are still cited as gospel by some. When people have a motivated reason to believe something, it is likely they will process any new information “based on what [they] already believe.”

Oransky believes this is the case with parents who still insist there is a connection between immunizations and autism. Parents want an answer as to why their children get a disease or a syndrome. Pointing to a specific event – like a vaccination – fills that need.

Also, Oransky noted, it took 12 years for the study linking vaccines with autism to be debunked. That’s a long time for a theory to get around and isn’t necessarily “going to change anybody who is deep in the throes of motivated reason.”

Roughly 500 scientific studies are retracted each year, Oransky said. “That’s out of a million papers published. It’s a rare event, but it is on the increase,” said Oransky, vice president and global editorial director of MedPage Today and a professor of medical journalism in New York University’s Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program.

Because retractions of studies aren’t widely disseminated, “they are still cited as if they are legitimate when, in fact, they are not,” Oransky said, pointing specifically to a debunked study that claimed there was a link between vaccinations and autism.

If anything is to come out of the latest measles outbreak that has seen more than 100 people infected in 14 states, Dr. Leslie Lobel hopes that it will be a wake-up call, and that opposition to vaccinations will disappear.

“There is not a scientific basis” to forgo immunizations, said Lobel, who works in the department of Microbiology, Immunology and Genetics Faculty of Health Sciences at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.

“Basically vaccinations are extremely safe. Just stepping out of your house” is more dangerous than getting vaccinated, Lobel said.

Vaccinations are necessary for the good of the whole community, Lobel said. Whether to be vaccinated isn’t an issue in Israel. “People in Israel understand you have to be socially
responsible. Unfortunately, the American society doesn’t get it. It’s sad,” Lobel said.

If people remembered how bad previous epidemics were, Lobel believes they would be more inclined to have their children vaccinated. “People used to die from the measles and polio” or become crippled, he said. “People forget the ravages of human disease.” Parents were so terrified they didn’t let their children go out in public for fear of catching polio.

Perhaps people aren’t immunizing their children because they believe “they are above everybody else,” he said. “The society we live in is highly dependent” upon people being vaccinated to stop the spread of infectious disease, said Lobel, who studies Ugandans who have survived Ebola to see what helped them recover.

“Most of medical history has been the conquering of infectious disease,” he said. Pointing to the recent outbreaks of Ebola and measles, Lobel said that without vaccinations, massive numbers of people will die. Infectious diseases can be “a huge threat to our survival.”

Day schools not reviewing policies in wake of measles outbreak

A test on a  suspected case of measles by the Fairfax County Health Department proved negative. Meanwhile, Jewish day schools in the Washington area have not taken steps to refuse to admit new students who are not fully immunized, nor are any reviewing policies in connection with the current measles outbreak.

For now, they are following state law, requiring their students show proof of immunization or a doctor’s note that exempts them from being vaccinated for medical or religious reasons. Medically, a child with a weakened immune system is exempt. Under a religious exemption, parents don’t have to detail their religious objection.

At Melvin J. Berman Hebrew Academy in Rockville, “hardly any” children opt out on religious grounds, said Shoshana Belgrade, school nurse. “There are some, a handful, less maybe,” she said.

At The Torah School of Greater Washington in Silver Spring, one or two families use the religious exemption, said a school spokesperson.

Mary Goldstein, the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School’s lower school nurse, wrote in an email that while the school follows state law and allows for religious exemptions, “Jewish law as set forth by the Torah states that we have an obligation to safeguard public health. Therefore, as a Jewish day school, we stand together to protect the health of everyone in our community.”

Goldstein said that “Jewish tradition would support immunization.”

Although Gesher Jewish Day School in Fairfax follows Virginia state law and allows for a religious exemption, not one student opted to do that this school year, said Lisa Stern, director of admissions. There also are no unvaccinated students currently attending the Jewish Primary Day School of the Nation’s Capital, according to Ronit Greenstein, the school’s communications manager.

Dr. Anne Schuchat, director of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, has urged parents to have their children vaccinated, calling the vaccine for measles “safe and effective and highly recommended.”

During a press briefing, Schuchat said the current measles outbreak “is not a problem with the measles vaccine not working. This is a problem of the measles vaccine not being used.”


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