BY LISA POISSO JUL 2016
To vaccinate, or not to vaccinate—or something in between? More and more doctors are recommending custom immunization schedules tailored to your child’s health, taking into account the number and timing of shots and each shot’s ingredients.
The vaccine-autism controversy heated up yet again in 2008 after the government compensated young Hannah Poling’s family for the autism-like symptoms she developed after receiving multiple immunizations. Celebrities like Jenny McCarthy (whose son has autism that she believes was caused by vaccine ingredients) keep vaccine safety in the news and on parents’ minds.
While available research does not seem to support a vaccine/autism link, some experts don’t think that lets vaccinations off the hook. These doctors think there’s a safer way to immunize. They’re working with parents in their practices to offer a more individual approach to the standard vaccination schedule, deferring shots babies don’t immediately need and spreading out the number of immunizations children receive at any one time.
In Poling’s case, she received six months’ worth of vaccines at 18 months to “catch her up” to the standard immunization schedule. “That’s the kind of vaccine overload that I worry about the most,” notes Dr. Bob Sears, a board-certified pediatrician and author of The Vaccine Book, which offers an alternative schedule.
Sears sees a need for more research to confirm the safety of today’s recommended vaccine schedule. In the meantime, he prefers to err on the side of caution. “I think it’s common sense: if you get less chemicals at once, your baby isn’t going to react as badly,” he explains. “If you get less germ components from vaccines all at once, your immune system’s going to handle it better.” He advises parents to hold off on shots their babies don’t yet need (for example, shots that protect against sexually transmitted diseases), avoiding questionable risks altogether.
“I’d say 50 percent of the kids in my practice are on some type of alternative schedule,” says Dr. Nina Cahan, one of few physicians in Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas, who openly accepts patients who do not vaccinate according to the standard immunization schedule. “I usually advocate no more than two shots at a time. I haven’t seen any serious vaccine reactions. I think part of it is that I haven’t done five or six shots at a time, and I think part of it is that I started using thimerosol-free vaccines the first week they came out.”
Most doctors stand by existing research and the standard, recommended childhood vaccination schedule. “I do not believe in alternate vaccine schedules,” says pediatrician Dr. Susan Hubbard. “There is a great deal of science that goes into why the immunizations are given as they are given. I don’t have any concerns that vaccines are what is causing the increase in autism.”
How can parents resolve differences in opinion? “Ask your doctor” is the mantra parents hear time and time again—yet according to Sears, it may or may not be a productive solution, depending on your doctor’s background. “Unless a doctor has made it one of their life passions to study vaccines in-depth and then spend years researching and reading and learning more, then a doctor’s knowledge on vaccines is basically limited to two sentences,” he explains. “‘Vaccines are safe and effective, with very few side effects’; and ‘The diseases are bad, and everyone should just follow the standard vaccine schedule.’ When a patient is getting advice from their doctor about vaccines, the patient has to realize they’re not really getting their doctor’s advice. They’re just getting standard medical community party line.”
The “party line” comes from the American Academy of Pediatrics, which had this to say about the recent Poling case: “The recent Vaccine Injury Compensation Program case raised many questions for the American Academy of Pediatrics. The AAP leadership is seeking access to official documents in the case so medical experts can examine the science and consider whether it raises implications for other children.” The AAP reaffirmed its recommendation that parents fully vaccinate their children.
No matter what you decide about vaccinations, it’s vital to work in concert with your health care provider. Doctors and parents alike report situations where providers lecture, harass, and even refuse to treat children who aren’t vaccinated on the standard schedule. The AAP does not condone turning patients away based on a refusal of one or more vaccinations.
Yet children who are not vaccinated require more complicated care, says family physician Dr. Daniel Chartrand, because he must consider the possibility that children may have any of the vaccine-preventable diseases. “It changes the way I approach a fever, and it changes the way I approach a sick kid,” he explains. “You’re much more likely to have blood drawn, get a shot, and be told to come back again the next day (to review results) if you’re not vaccinated.”
More Facts on Vax
•AAP Immunization Schedule (www.cispimmunize.org/)
•The Vaccine Book by Dr. Robert Sears (www.thevaccinebook.com)