Ask for Evidence and Data When Reporting on Health

My childhood doctor vaccinated me against measles, mumps and rubella as recommended by the U.S. government. A quarter century later I sat in another doctor’s office asking if the shots still protected me against those diseases.

Photographed early in 2014 in the Philippines capital city of Manila, this baby was in a hospital with measles (rubeola).  (PHOTO CREDIT: Jim Goodson, M.P.H.)

Photographed early in 2014 in the Philippines capital city of Manila, this baby was in a hospital with measles (rubeola). (PHOTO CREDIT: Jim Goodson, M.P.H.)

In an ideal world, we wouldn’t need to ask whether effective vaccines still work as intended. Even if someone’s immune system isn’t working properly, the rest of the vaccinated population should still keep the disease at bay.

We do not live in an ideal world, however.

Measles, a once-eradicated virus, is spreading across North America. Health experts put most blame at the feet of people who refuse to vaccinate themselves and their children against diseases because of unproven fears about side effects.

While journalists aren’t to blame for these parents’ refusals, we do have a responsibility to minimize harm from incorrect information. Unfortunately, news reports continue to feature doctors and others who provide unchallenged anecdotal evidence that vaccines do more harm than good.

No substance, natural or manufactured, is free of risks. But the best available medical research shows that the vaccines recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are extremely safe and effective.

Because the weight of evidence is so heavily stacked in favor of vaccines, people who are against vaccinations – so-called anti-vaxxers – should be challenged by journalists to provide data to support their claims.

As always, balanced reporting is important, but not all arguments carry equal weight.

One of the most popular myths is that the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine causes autism spectrum disorders, which are a collection of developmental disabilities. This myth gained momentum when it was supported in a 1998 article in a medical journal. Since then, the 1998 paper and its author were proved incorrect time and time again.

For example, a study reported in 2002 in The New England Journal of Medicine, involving more than 500,000 Danish children from 1991 through 1998, found that 82 percent – or roughly 410,000 – received the MMR vaccine. Overall, 738 children – or less than two-tenths of one percent – were diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder. There was no increased risk of a child being diagnosed among the children who received MMR vaccines.

There are also reports of kids having seizures and other developmental delays after a vaccination. Research shows that many of those children have Dravet syndrome, a rare genetic condition triggered by fevers and stress. Research also suggests that outcomes among kids with Dravet syndrome are similar with or without vaccinations.

People who suggest a link between vaccines and developmental conditions or severe injury should be asked to back those claims with the same quality evidence that supports vaccinations.

Especially with health issues, journalists must realize that their stories have consequences. Infectious diseases are only whispers from the past to modern U.S. parents. A 35-year-old father may choose not to vaccinate his children if a news report suggests they may be left disabled from a shot that protects against an eradicated disease.

Measles causes flu-like symptoms and a rash across the body. It’s spread through the air and is highly contagious. One measles virus infection may lead to 12 to 18 secondary infections.

About 30 percent of measles patients will have complications such as ear infections (sometimes with permanent hearing loss), diarrhea, pneumonia, brain swelling and death, the CDC warns. There’s also a risk for complications later in life.

The CDC says children should receive one dose of the MMR vaccine between 12 and 15 months of age and a second dose between ages four and six.  Most people will become immunized after the first dose; the second dose will likely protect those who didn’t respond to the first shot.

Babies younger than 12 months can’t be vaccinated against measles; they’re protected only by whatever limited immunity they may have inherited from their vaccinated mothers. Also vulnerable to measles and its complications are people with compromised immune systems, as from cancer treatment.

While a blood test confirmed that I’m still protected against measles thanks to my MMR vaccines, I continue to worry about my friends and family who are too young to be immunized or have weakened immune systems.

The Society’s Code of Ethics says journalists should seek truth and minimize harm. To me, that means we should do due diligence to make sure people have the most accurate medical information to protect themselves, their loved ones and society. As of now, the evidence says people should be immunized according to the CDC’s schedule. If others disagree, they should be required to present equally compelling evidence.


Andrew Seaman is the chair of the Society’s ethics committee.

 

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