As the CDC Reports an Uptick in Unvaccinated Children, Revisit “The Vaccine War”

October 12, 2018
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by Patrice Taddonio Digital Writer & Audience Development Strategist

A syringe and ampoule. Credit: Shutterstock

The percentage of U.S. children ages 19-35 months who have gone completely unvaccinated has grown from 0.3 percent in 2001 to 1.3 percent for those born in 2015, a survey published October 11 by the CDC estimates. 

While the vast majority of children in America receive vaccinations, the CDC noted that the increase in those who don’t raises concerns that there may be areas of the country where children are more vulnerable to some diseases.

A disproportionate number of America’s unvaccinated children are uninsured, the CDC said. But another reason why U.S. children are unvaccinated, the CDC report hypothesized, could be “choices made by parents.”

In The Vaccine War — a documentary that first aired in 2010, and was then updated in 2015 against the backdrop of a measles outbreak — FRONTLINE took a powerful look at why there is still fear about vaccines among some parents, despite established scientific consensus that there is no link between vaccines and disorders like autism.

As FRONTLINE reports in The Vaccine War, parents who choose not to vaccinate their children have reasons that are complex — involving their perceptions of medical risks and benefits, and also ideological beliefs about parenting, personal choice and the limits of government.

But as the film explores, doctors and public health experts have warned that growing skepticism about vaccines could enable the return of preventable diseases once thought to be eliminated. For example, thanks to widespread vaccination, diseases like whooping cough, mumps, and polio 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. 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.

One such doctor, Portland, Oregon-based pediatric intensivist Dr. Cynthia Cristofani, shared her story in the film. She had 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.”

Cristofani 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 on the science and politics of vaccine safety, watch The Vaccine War in full:

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