What to watch: NOVA’s Vaccines – Calling the Shots, Sept 10

What do diseases like the mumps, measles, and whooping cough have in common? Once considered largely eradicated diseases in the United States, they’re now reemerging throughout our country and the world.

What has this meant for us? Children are getting sick and dying from preventable diseases— and experts say that it’s happening in part because some parents are choosing to skip their children’s shots.

In light of recent disease outbreaks, the science series NOVA has a new documentary, Vaccines – Calling the Shots, to help parents find the answers they need about vaccines and use the best available evidence to make decisions about how to protect their children.

The documentary will address: How and why do vaccines work? What are the biggest concerns and misconceptions, and what are the risks to the child and society when people decide to forego immunization?

You'll see interviews with scientists, pediatricians, psychologists, anthropologists, and parents wrestling with vaccine-related questions, and the hour-long film explores the history and science behind vaccinations, tracks outbreaks, and sheds light on the risks of opting out.

It will air locally on WHYY on September 10 at 10:00 pm EST and nationally on PBS stations September 10 at 9:00 pm EST.

Paul Offit, MD, an infectious disease expert at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and one of the inventors of the Rotavirus vaccine, is featured in the documentary. We asked him to tell us more about the program and the risks of opting out.

Why are children's immune system vulnerable?

When children are less than 2 years of age, they’re starting to come into contact with bacteria like pneumococcus and meningococcus. They may be overwhelmed by this bacteria. For instance, babies’ white blood cells or your first line of defense aren’t working as well yet. When you’re older, you would’ve already come in contact with these bacteria and you’ve lived in symbiosis with them.

Does the reemergence of diseases like measles, whooping cough concern you? Can this trend be reversed easily?

Some of these diseases are preventable like measles. It’s up to 600 cases this year and it’s the largest that we’ve seen in 20 years. A large majority of children are getting it because their parents have chosen not to vaccinate. It’s a choice that puts their child at an unnecessary risk.

People are more compelled by fear than reason. The only way to convince them is when they can see the severity of these diseases. When it’s the disease knocking next door, then you start to believe it.

I can talk to parents who are fearful. But one group thinks that vaccines are a conspiracy to sell medicines and you can’t convince them. If reason and evidence don’t work, then you’re stuck.

What insights will the documentary offer those who may have concerns about vaccines?

It’s best the vaccine movie that has been made. It goes through parents’ various concerns. It features Alison Singer, the president of the Autism Science Foundation. Her daughter has autism and she had thought vaccines were a potential cause. The documentary shows how she came to look at studies that came out on the side of science. She felt misled by the anti-vaccine groups.

What’s do parents need to know about opting out of vaccinations?

The choice not to get a vaccine isn’t a risk free choice. They’re putting their child and others at risk. Not everyone in the United States can be vaccinated. About 500,000 people can’t be vaccinated because they are receiving chemotherapy for their cancers or immune suppressive therapies for their chronic diseases or because they are too young. These people depend on those around them to be vaccinated.

Once a year at this hospital, a child will succumb to a preventable disease. I don’t blame these parents because they’ve been frightened by anti-vaccine groups. People read things on the Internet about vaccine and it scares them. But what they read isn’t often true. Vaccines don’t cause autism or other long-term disorders.

Have a question for the Healthy Kids panel? Ask it here. Read more from the Healthy Kids blog »