CHOP Doc Gives Inoculation His Best Shot

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A Q and A with Dr. Paul Offit, the chief of infectious diseases at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia who works to overcome the beliefs of "anti-vaxxers." 

Dr. Paul Offit was a young attending physician at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia in 1991 when a local outbreak of measles infected more than 1,400 people and claimed nine lives, all of them children.

The area epidemic  — emanating from two local fundamentalist Christian churches opposed to vaccines — prompted the federal government in 1993 to create the Vaccines for Children program, which provides free shots for uninsured and underinsured children. As a result of the program, the number of immunized children increased significantly.

But a new wave of skepticism to vaccines has emerged in recent years, starting with a 1998 report that purported to link autism to vaccines — later debunked — and gaining steam with the help of celebrity Jenny McCarthy, who became the face of the anti-vaccine movement until she claimed, despite years of comments to the contrary, that she had been misrepresented, saying, “I am not anti-vaccine.”

Now the chief of infectious diseases at CHOP, the 63-year-old Offit has become a leading critic of the anti-vaccination movement. He has written a new book, Bad Faith: How Religious Belief Undermines Medicine, set to be released March 10, and recently spoke with the Jewish Exponent in a telephone interview about what he sees as the dangers of ignoring sound science. His responses have been edited for space and clarity.

What impact did the 1991 measles outbreak have on you?

It scarred me, so much so that when I watch young physicians now say measles is no big deal, which some of these physicians in Southern California have been saying, one can only imagine that they’ve just never experienced measles, which is inexcusable. Certainly before there was a vaccine, every year in the United States three to four million children would get measles, including me, and  48,000 would be hospitalized and 500 would die.

What was interesting about the Philadelphia outbreak was it was like a pre-vaccine outbreak because these children weren’t vaccinated, so it was like the old days — except it was worse because they also didn’t believe in medical care. They weren’t quarantined. The virus was rampant. The city was in a panic. The schools canceled trips to the city. The city was a feared destination.

When you say it scarred you, were you previously more open to people who were resistant to vaccinations?

No, I don’t think I’ve ever been open to that; that’s never been me. I had many of these diseases; I certainly lived at a time when these diseases were common and did harm. I have never understood the decision not to get a vaccine or supported it. I understand the instinct; I understand that it can feel like it’s too many too soon. I can understand the fear; I just don’t understand the decision. You are saying you don’t believe the doctors, you don’t believe public health officials — you know more. It’s just a bad decision that can put your child in harm’s way.

Would you like to see Pennsylvania’s laws, which allow for religious and philosophical exemptions to immunization requirements, changed?

Yes, because they don’t make sense; they’re illogical. We don’t have philosophical or religious exemptions to car seat laws. The reason we don’t do that is because car seats work. The same is true here. How is it a religious issue to needlessly expose your child, and those with whom they come in contact, to infectious diseases? How is that a religious thing?

You’ve written about how personal beliefs can cause people to ignore sound science. Could you talk about how that relates to the measles outbreak and resistance to vaccinations?

The reason there is an outbreak of measles now is that people don’t fear the disease, and so they have false beliefs as to what are vaccine safety issues. In the case of the measles-containing vaccine, the concern was that the vaccine caused autism, a concern that should have been well put to rest by scientific studies but, for some people, it hasn’t been.

Last year, a prominent haredi rabbi, Rabbi Shmuel Kamenetsky, dean of the Talmudical Yeshiva of Philadelphia, described vaccinations as “a hoax.” Could you respond to that? Also, how often do you talk with people from the Jewish community who are leery of vaccinations?

First of all, I’m Jewish, and secondly, there is a publication called P.E.A.C.H. Magazine. It is a Jewish publication put out by Orthodox Jews making a series of false claims about vaccines causing autism, vaccines causing sudden infant death syndrome, vaccines causing diabetes, attention deficit disorder, multiple sclerosis — all of which has been disproven. What do I think about this kind of a publication or a prominent rabbi stepping forward and saying that he thinks vaccines are a hoax or do harm? I think it’s embarrassing. I think that what’s so attractive about the Jewish religion is its dedication to health and protecting children.

I mean, our bodies are on loan from God. We don’t get tattoos for that reason. In the Jewish theocracy, if you have a treatable cancer, it’s not yours, frankly, to decide whether or not you want to get treated because it’s treatable. The science of vaccines is clear. We live longer because of vaccines. Vaccines have saved our lives, so to have somebody who has a platform — a prominent rabbi — who stands up and makes a series of false statements about vaccines, obviously of which he knows little, is irresponsible and dangerous. In a better world, other rabbis or prominent Jewish leaders would step up and denounce that view.

Could you describe your own religious beliefs?

I’m not a religious person. I’m from a deeply religious family, but it’s not me. There’s much that I like about it, but I think my problem is I don’t believe in the existence of a supreme being, which sort of cuts back on the whole prayer thing, but I like a lot of the religion. There are just certain beliefs I don’t hold. I think I am more ethnically Jewish than religiously Jewish.

When you say you come from a deeply religious family, could you elaborate?

My sister is a member of an Orthodox Jewish community in London. My brother is a member of a Chabad community in northern New Jersey. We were part of a Conservative synagogue in Baltimore, Md., growing up, Beth El. I was Bar Mitzvahed, I did all the things one was asked to do. I just think that as a scientist, I’m not alone. If you look at the Institute of Medicine, at least in my world, I’m in the majority. What happened is I got into the evidence business.

But that said, I have tremendous respect for those who are religious, which is to say, those who use their religion to do good, as distinct from the rabbi who described vaccines as a hoax, who is using his religious platform to do harm.