BETTY ANN BOWSER, NewsHour Correspondent: Hilary Chambers is a San Diego radio personality who recently had her world turned upside down. In February, she was confronted by state health department officials who quarantined her daughter, Finlee, for three weeks because she had been exposed to the measles.
Chambers was stunned. She was just about to have Finlee vaccinated at the government-recommended age of 12 months.
HILARY CHAMBERS: We were very scared, because we didn’t know what that meant.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Chambers was also angry, because the measles was brought to San Diego by a 7-year-old unvaccinated boy who was exposed to the disease while on vacation in Switzerland.
HILARY CHAMBERS: If you decide not to vaccinate, don’t take your child, your unvaccinated child, to a foreign country where there is a higher incidence of measles and other diseases. And if you do do that and you bring your child back sick, don’t take that child to public places until you know what’s really going on with them.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Because of that one child, 70 children had to be quarantined; 11 got the measles; one of those had to be hospitalized. Fortunately, there were no deaths.
The Centers for Disease Control say there have been at least 95 cases of measles in 11 states in just the first five months of this year. That’s the largest number since 2001.
Refusing to vaccinate
BETTY ANN BOWSER: The CDC says the outbreaks are being driven in part by people who are refusing to vaccinate their children.
Currently, all 50 states and the District of Columbia require vaccinations for a child to enter public school, but 49 allow exemptions for religious reasons.
And in recent years, 20 states, including California, now permit personal belief exemptions.
San Diego mom Sybil Carlson took a personal belief exemption when she enrolled her 7-year-old son, Miles, in school. Her other son, 3-year-old Quentin, hasn't been vaccinated either.
Even though Miles goes to the school where the San Diego outbreak started and both kids were exposed there, Carlson still decided not to vaccinate based on extensive research on the Internet.
SYBIL CARLSON: I started to read information that showed me that the information I was getting from the mainstream medical community wasn't necessarily accurate. Nobody told me about possible reactions, such as increased chances of allergies, increased chances of asthma, increased chances of autoimmune disease. Nobody told me any of that.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: And nobody told her that vaccines trigger autism in children, as she read on the Internet, because most doctors don't believe that's true.
But Carlson and a growing number of other parents don't accept the opinions of so-called mainstream medicine. They're taking their chances with disease.
SYBIL CARLSON: It's not that clear-cut, and so we felt like the potential risk from a vaccination, yes, was definitely higher than the risk from either contracting or having severe complications from one of the illnesses.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: The CDC's Dr. Anne Schuchat says all the outbreaks this year were started by people who were unvaccinated.
At some point, doesn't this become a concern for public health officials?
DR. ANNE SCHUCHAT, Director, National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases: You know, absolutely. Disease resurgence is a major concern for public health officials.
CDC dismisses autism link
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Parents started getting concerned about vaccines and autism in 1998, when a British researcher linked autism to the mumps, measles and rubella vaccine. That report has since been discredited.
At the time, many vaccines contained a mercury-based preservative called thimerosal, and some research linked it to autism. By 2002, thimerosal had been removed from most vaccines. And since then, study after study has found no connection between vaccines and autism.
Meanwhile, autism rates have continued to go up. Today, about 1 in 150 children are diagnosed with it.
Then, last year, the case of a little girl named Hannah Poling reignited the controversy, because, for the first time, the federal government awarded money to a child whose parents claimed she got autism from vaccines.
The anti-vaccine community rallied around this case, saying it proved there was a connection. But the CDC had a very different take.
Director Dr. Julie Gerberding made the following statement: "Let me be very clear. The government has made absolutely no statement about indicating that vaccines are a cause of autism. This is a really very special situation in a child who was genetically predisposed."
The CDC will make no further comment on the Poling case and still maintains vaccines do not cause autism.
Benefits of vaccination
DR. ANNE SCHUCHAT: There's been a number of studies that have tried to understand whether vaccines might be contributing to autism, and as of today there doesn't seem to be any connection.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Schuchat thinks today's young parents don't realize how bad the 1950s were for kids before there were a lot of vaccines to prevent illness.
Back then, children got mumps, measles, chicken pox, and polio, which left them crippled or in an iron lung. Some kids even died from the virus.
DR. ANNE SCHUCHAT: The vaccines that babies get today are preventing about 33,000 deaths over the course of those babies' lives, preventing 14 million infections, and also saving about $43 billion.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Before the measles vaccine, there were 3 million to 4 million cases of measles every year in the U.S. About 1,000 children developed encephalitis and 400 to 500 kids died.
Santa Monica pediatrician Dr. Jay Gordon is aware of that, but he believes that sometimes vaccines do more harm than good. Not one of his 3,000 patients has been vaccinated against all the diseases recommended by the government; 50 percent of them haven't been vaccinated at all.
DR. JAY GORDON, Pediatrician: I think the children who receive no vaccines at all are statistically safe. I think that the later you give vaccines and the more slowly you give vaccines, the safer you are.
Vaccines are causing an increase in the incidence of everything from diabetes to multiple sclerosis to other autoimmune diseases. And these are extremely rare occurrences, OK -- overstating it, OK, isn't honest, but it's happening.
DR. JAMES CHERRY, Professor of Pediatrics, UCLA: Our decision is whether we'll stop everything all at once and watch.
Future of vaccines
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Dr. James Cherry, a leading vaccine researcher and professor of pediatrics at UCLA, disagrees. He believes children need protection from diseases like tetanus as soon as possible. Tetanus can be fatal if bacteria gets into a cut in the skin.
Dr. Cherry also disapproves of the way Dr. Gordon conducts his medical practice.
DR. JAMES CHERRY: I think it's terrible. Once those children start crawling around, they're going to need tetanus. They're exposed to tetanus and injury, and they're going to have to be treated, and the treatment is going to be far worse. And it's actually bad for these people.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Is that irresponsible?
DR. JAMES CHERRY: Well, in my opinion, it is.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Is he doing something dangerous?
DR. JAMES CHERRY: Yes.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: And the CDC thinks the growing number of personal exemptors may also present a danger.
DR. ANNE SCHUCHAT: There have been several studies now that have looked at the association between exemption rates and disease rates, and it turns out that the more exemptors you have, the more disease you have.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: A former director of the National Institutes of Health recently broke rank with her colleagues in the mainstream medical community when she suggested it was biologically plausible that vaccines could trigger autism.
In an interview with CBS news correspondent Sharyl Attkisson, Dr. Bernadine Healy said the government needs to investigate why some children developed autistic symptoms after being vaccinated.
DR. BERNADINE HEALY, Former Director, National Institutes of Health: Vaccines are safe, but there may be the susceptible group. I think that the public health officials have been too quick to dismiss the hypothesis as irrational without sufficient studies of causation.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: The CDC had no comment on Dr. Healy's remarks and says, until there is evidence that definitively links vaccines to autism, parents should vaccinate their children.
[Editor's Note: Hillary Chambers name was corrected in this transcript after broadcast]