A few weeks ago, Representative Michele Bachmann (R-MN) made waves by claiming that the vaccine for human papillomavirus could have dangerous side effects. She retreated from her remarks after the American Academy of Pediatrics said that they had no scientific validity. Makers of biopharmaceuticals might feel vindicated, but a recent poll emphasizes that Bachmann is not alone in her views.
About 21% of respondents to an NPR–Thomson Reuters Health Poll believed that autism was linked to vaccines, and 7% believed that diabetes was linked to vaccines. Nearly half of the respondents worried about the side effects of vaccines, and about the same portion were concerned about their long-term effects on health. About a quarter of respondents said that their opinions about vaccines had changed during the past five years.
Patients’ concerns about vaccines’ safety are not supported by the evidence. Federal officials have studied vaccines’ links to side effects 12 times in the past 25 years, and the most recent report from the Institute of Medicine (IOM) found inadequate evidence to accept a causal relationship in the vast majority of cases. IOM did, however, find evidence to reject relationships between the measles–mumps–rubella (MMR) vaccine and autism, and between that vaccine and diabetes.
IOM did find links between vaccines and some adverse events, but the events were either rare or transient. For example, patients vaccinated against chicken pox can develop pneumonia, hepatitis, or meningitis late in life if an unrelated illness (e.g., cancer) compromises their immune system. In addition, the MMR vaccine was linked to temporary joint pain in children and female adults.
Biopharmaceutical manufacturers that are confident of their products’ safety could still benefit by launching a public-education program. Publicizing the many federal studies that have found vaccines to be safe and, as I wrote a few weeks ago, disclosing safety information gained during trials of approved vaccines could help to assuage patients’ fears.