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Pediatrician Weighs In On Vaccine Safety

Dr. Ken Haller talks about vaccination safety with 'St. Louis on the Air' host Don Marsh on Feb. 10, 2015, at St. Louis Public Radio in St. Louis.
Alex Heuer
St. Louis Public Radio

The measles vaccine is safe and effective, pediatrician Ken Haller said; there’s no reason not to get it.

“This virus is very tenacious,” Haller told “St. Louis on the Air” host Don Marsh on Tuesday. “If someone with measles walks into a room and even just breathes, it can stay in the air for two hours. Anyone coming into that room who’s susceptible has a 90 percent chance of getting sick from it.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says 121 measles cases have been reported in 17 states and Washington, D.C., since Feb. 6. Ten of those cases are in the Chicago area; the cases are tied to the same daycare facility, and all but one of the victims is younger than 1 year of age — too young for the measles vaccine. In 2004, the CDC says there were 37 measles cases in the U.S.; in 2014 there were 644 cases. Worldwide, about 20 million people get the measles each year, and 146,000 die from it.

“Even though we are seeing these cases, strictly speaking measles is still considered eradicated from the United States because these cases have been linked to people going abroad and getting it in another country then coming back and then spreading it locally. Then you get this big firestorm of cases and they die out,” said Haller, who is a SLUCare pediatrician at Cardinal Glennon and associate professor of pediatrics at Saint Louis University.

The measles vaccine is not new. People born after 1957 usually received the vaccine. Haller said he remembers having measles as a child. “I remember being really, really ill for a couple of weeks,” he said.

Measles generally starts with a fever, runny nose, cough, red eyes and sore throat, then is followed by a tell-tale rash that spreads over the body. About 30 percent of those who get measles develop complications, including pneumonia, ear infections or diarrhea, according to the CDC.

“People who get that vaccine once have about a 93 percent chance of being immunized the rest of their lives. If you get it a second time, that rises to about 97, 98 percent,” Haller said. “It’s a very, very effective vaccine.”

The measles, mumps and rubella vaccine is administered in two doses: the first at 12 to 15 months and the second at 4 to 6 years of age.

Vaccine fears persist, though, for a couple of reasons, Haller said.

“Being afraid for the safety of your child is normal and natural and healthy. It shows me you love your child,” Haller said. But other fears are based on a discredited paper that linked vaccines to autism 17 years ago.

“There was a paper that was published in 1998. It was written by an English physician, a gastroenterologist actually, named Andrew Wakefield. It purported to show a link between the MMR vaccine and autism,” Haller said. “Andrew Wakefield has been shown to be a con man.

“At the time he published this paper, Andrew Wakefield was on retainer from a law firm that was looking for clients to sue vaccine manufacturers. He was actually getting 150 pounds an hour for that,” Haller said.

Investigations have proven that Wakefield’s study also was not conducted as he said: 12 patients were hand-picked, and five of them started showing developmental problems months before the study was conducted. The others showed developmental problems months after the study.

“Most problematic of all, a year before (Wakefield) published this paper, he was attempting to patent what’s called a monovalent measles vaccine, a single measles vaccine, in the U.K. If his recommendation to separate the three vaccines in measles, mumps and rubella into three separate ones had been taken, he would have made a lot of money off of that. He did not disclose any of that to the editors of the Lancet, and that’s why he has had his medical license taken away.”

In addition to the MMR vaccine, Haller also recommends children are vaccinated against pertussis, also known as whooping cough, human papillomavirus and the flu. He said vaccines are developed for the diseases most likely to kill children.

“For those of us who take care of children, our mission is to make sure that kids don’t get sick, and we do whatever we can to make sure kids don’t get sick,” Haller said. “Our secondary mission is when they do get sick, we take care of them.”

“St. Louis on the Air” discusses issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary Edwards and Alex Heuer and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh. Follow us on Twitter: @STLonAir.

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