‘Frontline’ Look at ‘The Vaccine War’ Includes School Issues

By Mark Walsh — March 24, 2015 2 min read
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The PBS news show “Frontline” revisits the debates over childhood vaccines this week.

“Since we first reported on the issue in 2010, more parents have opted not to vaccinate,” narrator Will Lyman intones. “Frontline” incorporates the recent measles outbreak at Disneyland and the renewed attention it brought to “The Vaccine War,” as the episode is titled. (Tuesday at 10 p.m. Eastern time/9 p.m. Central. Check local listings.)

(In addition to “Frontline”'s earlier effort, the PBS science show “Nova” did an hour in September on the vaccine debate.)

The new “Frontline” report leans heavily toward the medical and pharmaceutical professionals and others who extoll the need to vaccinate the nation’s children against some 14 infectious diseases. These include Dr. Paul A. Offit of the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, a prolific writer on the topic who is derided among vaccine critics because he has profited from a vaccine he developed.

“The benefits of vaccines are clear,” Offit says. We also hear from the author Seth Mnookin, now with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; and the bioethicist Arthur L. Caplan of New York University.

“The Internet has been fuel on the fire of vaccine fears,” Caplan says in the report.

But “Frontline” gives a seemingly fair hearing to vaccine skeptics, who include the TV personality Jenny McCarthy, the environmentalist Robert F. Kennedy Jr., and the freelance writer Jennifer Margulis, who says she is pro-vaccine but against forced vaccinations.

There is some familiar ground: The report looks at the multiple studies that have debunked the research by Andrew Wakefield in the British medical journal The Lancet in 1999 that first drew a link between vaccines and autism.

The report visits a couple of schools, including one in Marin County, Calif., where a boy whose immune system has been weakened by leukemia urges his local school board to end “personal-belief exemptions,” which lower the effectiveness of “herd immunity” to diseases.

Perhaps the most compelling person in the report is Dr. Cynthia Cristofani, a Portland, Ore., physician who describes herself as a “pediatric intensivist.” She has been documenting with a video camera rare cases of vaccine-preventable illnesses that she has come across, including whooping cough and deadly strep sepsis from an infected chicken pox lesion.

“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 says in the report.

As the vaccine war continues to rage, “Frontline” will probably have to revisit the topic again in five years. In the meantime, this week’s episode is worth watching.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Education and the Media blog.