Deadly Choices: How the Anti-Vaccine Movement Threatens Us All - Paul A. Offit (2010)


There’s a war going on out there—a quiet, deadly war.

On one side are parents. Every week they’re bombarded with stories about the dangers of vaccines. They hear that babies get too many vaccines, overwhelming their immune systems—then they watch them get as many as thirty-five shots in a span of only a few years and sometimes five at one time. They hear that vaccines cause chronic diseases. And they hear this from people they trust: celebrities like Oprah Winfrey, Larry King, Bill Maher, Don Imus, Jenny McCarthy, and Jim Carrey; elected representatives like Carolyn Maloney, Chris Smith, Dave Weldon, and Dan Burton; television correspondents like Sharyl Attkisson of CBS Evening News; and popular doctors like Mehmet Oz and Robert Sears. But mostly they hear it from parents like themselves—parents who claim their children were fine one minute, got a vaccine, then weren’t fine anymore. Understandably, some parents are backing away from vaccines; one in ten are choosing not to give one or more vaccines. Some aren’t giving any vaccines at all; since 1991 the percentage of unvaccinated children has more than doubled.

On the other side are doctors. Weary of parents who insist on individualized schedules, scared to send children out of their offices unvaccinated, and concerned that their waiting rooms, packed with unvaccinated children, are becoming a dangerous place, they’re taking a stand. As many as four in ten pediatricians now refuse to see families who don’t vaccinate, causing some parents to seek the comfort of doctors or chiropractors more willing to do what they ask.

Caught in the middle are children. Left vulnerable, they’re suffering the diseases of their grandparents. Recent outbreaks of measles, mumps, whooping cough, and bacterial meningitis have caused hundreds to suffer and some to die—die because their parents feared vaccines more than the diseases they prevent.

Amid the confusion, another group has emerged: parents angry that unvaccinated children have put their children at risk. Some of these parents have children who can’t be vaccinated. Weakened by chemotherapy for their cancers, or immunosuppressive therapy for their transplants, or steroid therapy for their asthma, these children are particularly vulnerable. They depend on those around them to be vaccinated; if not, they’re the ones most likely to suffer during outbreaks.

We’ve come to a crossroads. During the past two decades, as more states have allowed exemptions to vaccination, population immunity has broken down. And the questions have gotten harder. Should states continue to allow parents to opt out of vaccines? Or should they step in and take away that right?

The fear of vaccines, the choice to act on that fear, the consequences of that choice, and the voices rising in protest are the subjects of this book.