The Truth About Vaccines: A Conversation with Baylor College of Medicine’s Dr. Peter Hotez
A spokesperson for President-Elect Donald Trump confirmed Tuesday that Trump recently met with Robert F. Kennedy Jr., a vocal vaccine skeptic. The news prompted many in the scientific community, including the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Academy of Family Physicians, to reiterate the evidence that vaccines protect public health, prevent illnesses and do not cause autism.
TMC News spoke with Dr. Peter Hotez, M.D., Ph.D., dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine and president of the Sabin Vaccine Institute and Texas Children’s Hospital’s Center for Vaccine Development, to learn more.
Q: In light of yesterday’s news about Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s meeting with President-Elect Trump regarding vaccine safety, what are the consequences of the anti-vaccination movement?
The anti-vaccination movement has been around for quite a while, but it’s taken on a new character in the last couple of years. First of all, it’s regrouped in Texas in particular: There’s been the creation of a new political action committee called Texans for Vaccine Choice, which raises money for legislators to run on anti-vaxxer platforms; and Andrew Wakefield, the outspoken director of “Vaxxed,” which is a pseudoscience conspiracy documentary, has moved to Austin, Texas.
What we have now is an effort to promote non-medical exemptions so parents can opt their kids out of getting vaccinated for school entry. And what we’ve seen, and I’ve just published this in the Public Library of Science’s journal, PLOS Medicine, is that Texas is up to 50,000 kids now that are not getting vaccinated, and the actual number could be much higher. So you have some schools where you are getting 10, 20, 30 percent of the kids not being vaccinated, and what that usually means is we’re going to start seeing measles epidemics. My paper basically predicts measles in the next year or two, which is a highly deadly disease, killing 100,000 people a year.
What seems to have happened is that this neo anti-vaxxer movement in Texas is going national, because one of the most outspoken anti-vaxxers is Bobby Kennedy Jr., who has compared vaccines to the Holocaust. He is now working with the president-elect to look at the possibility of creating some type of national commission. The reason I get involved is because I make vaccines; I’m the head of the Sabin Vaccine Institute & Texas Children’s Hospital’s Center for Vaccine Development and the National School of Tropical Medicine here at Baylor College of Medicine, and I also have a daughter with autism.
Q: Can you talk about the debunked link between the preservative called thimerosal, which is used in some vaccines, and autism?
There is a massive amount of evidence showing that there is no link between vaccines and autism, and there’s no plausibility, because this is a condition that begins in the first trimester of pregnancy.
As far as the link between thimerosal and autism, the anti-vaxxer movement keeps moving the goalpost. Sometimes they say it’s the thimerosal, sometimes they’ll say it’s the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine, other times they’ll say it’s certain vaccines taken together, and they’re now talking about aluminum in vaccines. But it doesn’t matter what the claim is, all of the studies published in the last few years clearly show there is no link to vaccines and autism. And again, there is no plausibility. You have wonderful papers by neuroscientists, including some papers that were written by people in the Texas Medical Center, as well as a paper in the New England Journal of Medicine by Eric Courchesne from the University of California San Diego, showing that the changes in the brains of kids with autism are happening in the first trimester of pregnancy.
Q: The scientific and medical community stands by the safety of vaccines. Can you briefly explain the evidence supporting vaccine safety in general?
Vaccines are probably one of the most closely watched interventions in all of human medicine. There is a massive reporting database run by the federal government called VAERS, which stands for Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System. There are rare complications of vaccines; the numbers show that of the 2 billion vaccines given between 2006 and 2014, serious adverse events occurred less than one in a million times. Your risk of being hit by lightning is one in 280,000, so you’re four times more likely to be hit by lightning than you are to suffer a serious adverse effect from a vaccine.
Q: Some parents vaccinate their children but choose not to follow the CDC’s recommended schedule with the belief that spacing the vaccinations out is safer. Is there any evidence to support this?
There is no evidence to show that it’s safer, but there is risk that with spacing that the vaccine will not give you protective immunity. The vaccine schedules were all designed on clinical trials, so when you’re messing with that, you risk giving a vaccine that will not be effective. There’s no scientific basis to support changing the spacing of the vaccines. Remember, the immune system of an infant is presented with dozens of antigens every day, so it doesn’t make sense that a couple of extra doses of antigens would do something that nature isn’t already doing.
Q: What does 2017 look like for vaccination efforts here in Texas?
We’ve got some important organizations in Texas that are trying to fight back. Our Sabin Vaccine Institute & Texas Children’s Hospital’s Center for Vaccine Development are very vocal about the harm that the anti-vaxxer community is doing. We also have Dr. Julie Boom and Dr. Carol Baker with the Center for Vaccine Awareness and Research at Texas Children’s Hospital, as well as The Immunization Partnership, which is also based in Houston. I think we’ll work hard with the legislature this year to close the loophole, because it’s just too easy to opt out of getting vaccinated, and it’s a valid threat to kids in Texas. You have a situation now where if you’re a young mother or parent with an infant under a year of age who is not yet ready to get his or her measles vaccination, you have to live in fear that your infant is going to contract measles because there are such high unvaccinated rates. You’re afraid to go out in shopping malls and supermarkets, public libraries and other public spaces, so this has become an issue where parents and their infants have their personal liberties threatened.
Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.