Protecting Kids: My Experience with Vaccine Refusal and Autism Awareness
By Peter Hotez
This post is part of the #ProtectingKids blog series. Read the whole series here.
This month the World will celebrate its eighth annual Autism Awareness Day, when Niagara Falls and other landmarks were lit up in the color blue.
Last year at this time, I wrote about my youngest daughter Rachel and her struggles with autism and other disabilities. The fact that my “day job” (as head of the Sabin Vaccine Institute and Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development - based in Houston, Texas at Baylor College of Medicine) is focused on developing new vaccines for neglected diseases affecting the world’s poor, gives me an unusual perspective – and a pivotal role – as both a vaccinologist and a parent of a child with a particularly disabling form of autism.
My position is unequivocal. The scientific evidence overwhelmingly supports the fact that vaccines are safe and there is no evidence linking them to autism. In fact, there is extensive scientific literature now refuting any associations between vaccines and autism. But I take it a step further by stating there are not even plausible mechanisms linking vaccines to autism, based on published papers on autism’s genetic and epigenetic basis, and neuroscience studies showing that malformations in the neuroarchitecture of the cortex in children with autism appear to begin while the baby is still a fetus, well before an infant receives its first vaccines.
Beyond the recent measles epidemic that struck southern California because parents chose not to vaccinate their children, I’m worried that such “vaccine hesitancy” sentiments could spill over to low income countries where outbreaks of measles and other childhood illnesses could have large-scale catastrophic consequences. For instance, because of underlying malnutrition measles is much more lethal in less developed countries of Africa and Asia than it is in the United States and Europe.
In the Public Library of Science (PLOS), Heidi Larson and her colleagues at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine have just released a Global Vaccine Confidence Index that confirms some of our fears about vaccine hesitancy among the poor. Among parents who hesitate to vaccinate their child, they found that an estimated 60 percent living in the country of Georgia (in the Caucuses of Eurasia) are outright vaccine refusers, as are almost one-quarter of Nigerians, and 15-17 percent of Indians and Pakistanis. I worry that if this lack of confidence in vaccines continues, it could reverse the amazing trends we’ve seen over the last two decades in reducing childhood mortality. I am also a scientist working with the Global Burden of Disease Study based in Seattle at the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation, which recently released data showing up to 90 percent or more reductions childhood deaths since 1990. Those deaths were prevented because of increased vaccine coverage and the development of new vaccines for childhood pneumococcal and rotavirus vaccines. In addition to World Health Organization (WHO) and the GAVI Alliance some of these reductions in child deaths represent the proud accomplishment of PATH and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, as well as the advocacy of the late Dr. Ciro de Quadros and now Dr. Jon Andrus at the Sabin Vaccine Institute.
In my travels as United States Science Envoy and as a vaccine researcher I have come to learn that the United States is widely admired for its great research universities and institutes. Vaccine hesitancy and refusal is a worrisome trend in the United States and is not something we can afford to encourage or export. And as a parent who has loved my disabled child from the day she was born, I do not believe there is a single better way to protect her and millions of children around the world than through the miracle of vaccines.
Peter Hotez MD PhD is President of Sabin Vaccine Institute and Director of its product development partnership based at Texas Children’s Hospital and Baylor College of Medicine, where he is also Dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine. In 2014 he was appointed as United States Science Envoy for the White House and State Department. The views herein are his own and not necessarily those of the White House, US State Department, or US Government.