Could Your Pediatrician Spot a Disease Made Rare By Vaccines?

March 23, 2015
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by Patrice Taddonio Assistant Director of Audience Development

Whooping cough. Mumps. Polio.

Thanks to widespread vaccination, diseases like these that once killed thousands of Americans each year have become so rare in the U.S. that most younger doctors have never seen a case in-person.

But that could change if enough people stop vaccinating, according to many of the doctors, ethicists and public health officials FRONTLINE spoke with in The Vaccine War — a newly updated version of our 2010 documentary that airs Tuesday, March 24 on PBS stations and online.

That’s why Portland, Oregon-based pediatric intensivist Dr. Cynthia Cristofani has made it her mission to document the rare cases of vaccine-preventable illness that she’s come across over the years — and to use the footage to teach other medics how to recognize these diseases and educate parents on what they entail.

“The community recollection for these diseases has largely disappeared, and so the parents of younger kids who are of vaccine age are unlikely to have had any personal experience,” Cristofani told FRONTLINE.

“Unless the grandparents or others can tell them what it was like and happen to have had knowledge of somebody who had a severe complication,” she added, “it’s easy to imagine that these diseases are eradicated.”

That presents a challenge for physicians: A study published this month in the journal Pediatrics found that most doctors say yes to parents who request to delay their children’s vaccinations.

Cristofani, who treats children in need of critical care, shared her video archive with FRONTLINE. It’s one of the few places where you can see what vaccine-preventable diseases really look like, and the footage is jarring:

There’s a baby girl with pertussis, also known as whooping cough, panicking because she can’t breathe. A young boy struggling with potentially deadly strep sepsis from an infected chicken pox lesion. And another young boy racked by haemophilus influenza type B meningitis — which Cristofani describes as “the scourge of pediatrics when I was in training because there was no vaccine.”

For more of Dr. Cristofani’s insights and rare footage, watch The Vaccine War Tuesday night on PBS. Against the backdrop of an ongoing measles outbreak that has been linked back to Disneyland, the documentary is a powerful look at why there is still fear about vaccines despite established scientific consensus that there is no link between vaccines and disorders like autism.

 Find out when The Vaccine War airs on your local PBS station.

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