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An Alternative Vaccination Schedule Actually Presents More Risks Than Benefits


Late into the Republican presidential debate last night, an issue that's already lit up the campaign trail. Unlike the usual broad political themes, it deals with specific medical advice for parents.


DONALD TRUMP: I'm in favor of vaccines. Do them over a longer period of time, same amount...

JAKE TAPPER: Thank you.

TRUMP: ...But just in little sections.

CORNISH: That's Donald Trump, who's often linked vaccinations to autism. He, of course, is not a doctor. But on the stage were two candidates who are. Here's what Ben Carson, a pediatric neurosurgeon, had to say.


BEN CARSON: We have extremely well-documented proof that there's no autism association with vaccinations. But it is true that we are probably giving way too many in too short a period of time.

CORNISH: First thing today, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a statement noting that medical science disproves a link between vaccines or the usual recommended vaccine schedule and autism. And they said, quote, "it is dangerous to public health to suggest otherwise." So where did the idea of vaccine spacing come from? To help answer that, we're joined by reporter Tara Haelle, who's written extensively on the topic. Welcome to the program.

TARA HAELLE: Hi. Thank you very much.

CORNISH: So we're going to talk here basically not about vaccines but about the schedule.

HAELLE: Right.

CORNISH: When your child gets the vaccines. The schedule recommended by the CDC is endorsed by the American Academy of Pediatrics. That's the largest organization of pediatricians in the country, and it's also backed up by research, right?

HAELLE: Correct. In fact, the Institute of Medicine conducted a huge study looking at the entire base of evidence in 2013 with the intention of specifically assessing the safety and effectiveness of the schedule as it is currently written. The Institute of Medicine is comprised of a bunch of different professionals from all different disciplines in health and medicine without any industry ties. They looked at the evidence altogether and said, yes, this is a safe, effective schedule. This is the safest, most effective way to protect children from these diseases.

CORNISH: So who else besides the candidates that we heard from last night - who else supports this idea of spacing out vaccinations? Do you have any sense of where the idea came from?

HAELLE: It can be traced to one book, unfortunately. In 2007, a pediatrician in California named Bob Sears, who's part of the famous pediatrician Sears family, wrote a book called "The Vaccine Book." And in it, he proposed alternative schedules, which is a misnomer because there is no alternative schedule. There is just the vaccine schedule.

So he posed that people who are uneasy about all the shots space them out according to a schedule that he proposed in his book. The problem is that the schedule he proposes in his book is not tested by any medical authorities at all. No studies have been done to say that it's safe or it's effective. He's essentially promoting an untested schedule that gives people a false sense of security and can actually increase risks because when you delay vaccines, several different risks go up.

CORNISH: Well, is - why is this getting traction, though? I mean, is it getting more traction than just the anti-vaccination campaign? Do people see it as a compromise?

HAELLE: Definitely. People see this as a training-wheels option, I guess, where they feel that their children might be in danger for getting, quote, unquote, "too many shots too soon." And they don't really understand that the schedule is set up specifically to be the safest and most effective way to deliver the vaccines, so they feel more comfortable doing it slowly. The book was a bestseller, and he has continued to promote it. So it gained a lot of traction among people who were not anti-vaccine, but they're just really uneasy about giving all the shots to their little baby. It's a fear factor.

CORNISH: What are some of the risks of the idea of an alternative schedule, the idea of spacing?

HAELLE: Well, each time you go to the doctor's office, you are subjecting your child to more microbes that are in that office. You can catch a disease every time you go to the office because sick kids go there. You also are increasing the number of stick visits. So a - you know, a child can get one needle or three needles in a visit, and there are studies showing that getting three needles is no more traumatic than getting one needle. But having three different visits with a different needle each time is more traumatic.

CORNISH: You know, you've been reporting on vaccines and the vaccine debate for a long time. Do you think that it says something about where this debate is that spacing came up - the idea of an alternate schedule came up in such a prominent place.

HAELLE: Yeah. I think it shows that the public health community has their work cut out for them. It's very difficult to overcome the misconceptions about vaccines and the fears. Most public health community people are not worried about trying to convince anti-vaccine people, per se. They're concerned about reaching the parents who are just scared. They don't have a lot of good information. They're uncertain about things. That emotional sense of, I'm not hurting my baby as much, gains a lot of traction, and I think that's unfortunate.

CORNISH: Tara Haelle is a freelance science reporter and an occasional contributor to Shots. That's NPR's health blog. Thank you so much for coming in to speak with us.

HAELLE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.