The Truth about vaccines 6: rotavirus

Hopefully, you get the picture from my posts about episodes 1-5 that The Truth about Vaccines is anything but truthful.  This series is really just full of misinformation and lies. For today’s post, I am going to focus exclusively on the misinformation about rotavirus vaccine and Dr Paul Offit, as presented in episode 6. This vaccine is the reason I became a vaccine advocate in the first place. You can read my story, “How a bout of rotavirus made me appreciate vaccines.”

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For my family, rotavirus was a terrible experience. It was 10 days (times two) of me not sleeping much at all, because my 11 month old daughter was spewing fluids from both ends every hour or so. When she was not vomiting or having diarrhea, she was nursing. If she was not nursing, she was crying. She refused to eat or drink anything else and would not take her pacifier. I took her to the doctor and was given information on how to keep her hydrated.  It was very hard on both of us and I am not exaggerating when I say that I experienced psychological trauma going through those ten days (times two). I have spoken with other moms who’ve experienced severe rotavirus in their babies and they understand and feel the same way.  14 years later, I still get upset and teary just thinking about it. It was godawful.

With all this in mind, watching the “experts” in the Truth about vaccines talk about rotavirus was painful.

First, Robert F Kennedy Jr implied that the only reason Dr Paul Offit invented the rotavirus vaccine was to take part in the “vaccine gold rush.” RFK Jr, also brings up that the rotavirus inventor, Dr Paul Offit sits on the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) and holds a chair at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) that is financed by Merck. . It is claimed that Offit voted to add the vaccine to the schedule and then later sold the patent for millions of dollars.  The implication is that because Dr Offit is a “vaccine industry insider,” and this vaccine was put on the market for nefarious reasons.

Next, Jennifer Margulis calls rotavirus “a pretty benign disease.”  She also claims that the decrease in rotavirus incidence has led to an increase in norovirus rates and “that is much more virulent than rotavirus.”  She says ” The theory that I have behind that is that since rotavirus, which was relatively benign, that almost every child in America got before age five and recovered from—no child in America has ever died from rotavirus with the exception of that kid that poor Paul Offit saw when he was a young doctor. Kids in America don’t die of rotavirus. There’s no reason to be giving the rotavirus vaccine.” (Note: Margulis is referring to a story Dr Offit tells of being unable to treat an Appalachian girl with rotavirus, due to her severe dehydration, and how that spurned him to study the disease.)

Then, Dr Paul Thomas, who does not give his patients rotavirus vaccine, claims that his patients who got the vaccine elsewhere have more diarrhea and ER visits than his patients who were not given this vaccine. (Please note he presents no actual data for us to verify his claims nor has he published any data.)  Thomas also says the rotavirus vaccine is contaminated. Barbara Loe Fisher also claims dangerous porcine viruses are in rotavirus vaccines and Sayer Ji implies porcine viruses “are able to infect children with a virus that goes into potentially their germline” and they are in the “same category as HIV, which is associated with AIDS.”

 

Let’s dive in to these claims.

 

The first rotavirus vaccine came on the market in 1998 and was called RotaShield. Pretty soon after, it was noted that some infants were experiencing intussusception soon after vaccination. Rotashield was pulled from the market and studied and an increased risk found between the vaccine and intussusception.  “Intussusception from all other causes is most common among infants in the first year of life; 1 child in 2,000 children to 1 child in 3,000 children is affected before one year of age. Based on the results of the investigations, CDC estimated that one or two additional cases of intussusception would be caused among each 10,000 infants vaccinated with RotaShield® vaccine.”

Please note that infants can get intussusception even when unvaccinated.

Seven years passed before another rotavirus vaccine was on the market. RotaTeq, from Merck, was invented by Drs Fred Clark, Stanley Plotkin, and Paul Offit and licensed in 2006. Rotarix, fromGlaxoSmithKline Biologicals, was licensed in 2008. Globally, there are other rotavirus vaccines. Dr Offit did not sit on the FDA committee that approved any rotavirus vaccine and he was not a member of ACIP, as RFK Jr claims, at the time they voted to recommend adding rotavirus vaccine to the immunization schedule.  The patent for RotaTeq was sold for $182 million but by CHOP, not the doctors who invented the vaccine. As co-inventors, each of the three doctors split 10% of that three ways. Keep in mind that they spent 25 years working on that vaccine, nearly all vaccines in development never make it to market, and they never knew if their vaccine would succeed until it did. As Dr Offit himself states, scientists don’t research vaccines for money. “You do it because it’s fun and because you think you can contribute. And the reward for creating a vaccine was also never financial. The reward was watching this vaccine dramatically reduce the incidence of rotavirus hospitalizations in the US and now getting to watch the vaccine enter the developing world in countries like Mali, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Ghana, and Nicaragua. That’s why we did it.”

Jennifer’s claim that rotavirus is a benign disease is easily negated by the facts:

Dehydration is the major concern for infants with rotavirus.  Globally, 3.4% of child deaths are from dehydration and rotavirus. Most deaths occur in the poorest countries, but rotavirus was still a health concern in USA, before the vaccine. In the prevaccine era, in the USA, 95% of children under five experienced at least one rotavirus infection by age five.

“Rotavirus infection [in USA] was responsible for more than 400,000 physician visits, more than 200,000 emergency department (ED) visits, 55,000 to 70,000 hospitalizations, and 20 to 60 deaths each year in children younger than 5 years. Annual direct and indirect costs were estimated at approximately $1 billion, primarily due to the cost of time lost from work to care for an ill child. In the prevaccine era, rotavirus accounted for 30% to 50% of all hospitalizations for gastroenteritis among U.S. children younger than 5 years of age; the incidence of clinical illness was highest among children 3 to 35 months of age. Infants younger than 3 months of age have relatively low rates of rotavirus infection, probably because of passive maternal antibody, and possibly breastfeeding. Rotavirus infection of adults is usually asymptomatic but may cause diarrheal illness.”

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And she claims norovirus is worse than rotavirus. Rotavirus is 3 to 8 days of terrible diarrhea and vomiting that can be severe in infants. Norovirus is 12 to 48 hours of vomiting and diarrhea. Rotavirus used to cause 200,000 ER visits a year and 50,000-70,000 hospitalizations a year, pre-vaccine.  Norovirus rates vary from year to year but, in bad years, it has also caused as many as 250,000 ER visits and 50,000-70,000 hospitalizations. As you can see by this graph of hospitalization rates for norovirus, norovirus rates clearly go up and down and have not risen dramatically, other than the pandemic years, since rotavirus vaccine was licensed. And, rotavirus did not only kill the one child Dr Offit met as an intern. It killed as many as 60 infants a year, pre-vaccine. Clearly, Jennifer Margulis is wrong.

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Dr Paul Thomas’ claims about his own vaccinated patients being sicker than those who did not have rotavirus vaccine are unable to be verified. There are no better than rumors or anecdotes. I could counter with my own anecdote that I have only had a gastro infection once in my life, never had noro or rota viruses, my younger (vaccinated for rotavirus) daughter has never had a gastro infection in 9 years, and my oldest has never had a gastro bug since she was 14 months old and recovered from that second round of wild rotavirus. Harrumph!

Finally, the porcine dna issue has been studied at great length and not found to be a health concern by anyone reputable. Keep in mind that people opposed to vaccines present a lot of concerns about dna in vaccines without regard to the fact that we eat, breathe, and drink non-human dna all day, every day.  They fear that we are going to turn into mutants, like The Fly. If non-human dna were a health risk, I would be half cat, thanks to these guys.

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Remember to think for yourself,

 

Kathy

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How a Bout of Rotavirus Made Me Appreciate Vaccines

This article was originally published as part of Project Muse From: Narrative Inquiry in Bioethics Volume 6, Number 3, Winter 2016  pp. 161-163 | 10.1353/nib.2016.0073

 

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When my first baby was about 11 months of age, she got rotavirus. There was not a vaccine on the schedule in 2003. She went to play at a city recreation center for toddlers and ended up being part of a large outbreak of this horrible virus, diagnosed by her doctor. She was incredibly sick for 10 days. She reverted to exclusive breastfeeding and refused everything else, including popsicles or Pedialyte. She would only breastfeed, which was comforting for her as well as life saving. She had a very bad case of rotavirus, with diarrhea and vomiting at least 10 times each a day for 10 days. It was pure hell for me as I barely slept for ten days. And I worried non-stop that she would die from dehydration and organ failure.

 

Two weeks later, she got it again. Even though I keep a clean house, in my attempt to keep a healthy house I did not realize I had not actually killed the rotavirus. It can live for ten days on hard surfaces and for weeks on wet surfaces. The healthy, ‘green’ cleaners that smell good do not kill it. Vinegar does not kill it. Bleach kills it but I was not using bleach as I thought it was toxic. And, I had not washed the stuffed animals.

 

When she got it again, it was just as bad as the first time. This time, I also took her to a local naturopath, thinking she might have some ideas about how to help my poor baby. She recommended two things: probiotics and bleach. Probiotic powder on my nipples during nursing eased the tummy troubles. Bleach solution cleaned and killed the virus. I washed and cleaned literally every thing in my house, from Duplos to stuffed animals to the window blinds. Every thing got a wash down with a mild bleach solution, the kind daycare centers use to clean surfaces. Thankfully, I have never experienced another tummy bug with any of my kids ever again. Twelve years later, I still consider this one of the worst experiences of my life. I commiserate with other rotavirus moms since they are the only ones who truly understand the experience.

 

This experience that made me realize how fragile our babies can be. In olden days, the infant mortality rate was very high not only because of sanitation and nutrition issues, but because babies are fragile and can die easily from diseases. Even after we had clean water and good food in the USA, babies still died or suffered greatly from these diseases. I am very thankful for modern medicine.

 

In 2004, I discovered the online world of parenting groups. These groups can help you connect with other people during the day. But, they also bring up a lot of issues for you to stress about which may not be issues with busier moms. Not that busy moms are negligent but stay at home moms have more time to worry about little things that may or may not be important. I have found that only other mothers who have been through having a child with rotavirus understand how awful this experience can be. With chatting online came questions about vaccines. I was a teacher before becoming a mom yet I had never heard of anyone not vaccinating. I was completely unaware, before children, of the extent to the antivax movement.

 

I studied social networking in college years ago, long before online social networking was even a dream. The principles of connecting people together via social groups are very interesting and I really appreciate how amazing it can be to connect with like-minded people from all over the world. When you are parenting alone, because your partner is working and your friends are working and your mom is far away, then online chatting is a real blessing. I have learned a lot from all the chat forums I joined over the years: Mothering, Babycenter, Pregnancy, Diaperswappers, and many others. I learned about and practiced attachment parenting, baby wearing, cloth diapering, co-sleeping, home birth, and making health choices in the home.

 

But nothing prepared me for what I learned about vaccines.

 

The first time I ventured into a vaccination forum, in an online group, was to ask why people discount the science? I asked that most sincerely because, it seemed to me that people were not actually paying attention to what science tells us about vaccines. Little did I know that there are different ideas amongst those who oppose vaccines about what constitutes a risk and what defines risk. I found people who would read the same study as I and see different things in it. For example, a study discussing one very rare reaction, out of millions or billions of vaccines given, could dissuade some from vaccinating even if most people understand the risk is greater with the diseases. For some, a large list of studies showing the aluminum used in vaccines is safe does not counter one study showing it could be dangerous. Cherry picking information is common amongst those opposed to vaccines. I don’t blame them for not understanding cherry picking versus scientific consensus, as most of them have not been taught what it means. Most people opposed to vaccines are sincerely interested in good health. Natural health gurus have misled them.

 

I also found a common argument that vaccines did not really end disease outbreaks and good nutrition and a healthy immune system is all one needs to avoid disease. As a teacher, I approached these discussions like research assignments. I did as much research as I could by reading studies and books. I read all the books I could find, whether for or against vaccines. I got my then-husband in on my research. He is a toxicologist and we looked at the EPA IRIS database and other sources for defining toxicity of ingredients. I consider myself quite open minded and really went into this research assuming I would find out that vaccines are horrible for us. But, quite the opposite, I found the risks associated with vaccines to be extremely miniscule and the ingredients to be not toxic at all at those doses.

 

I assumed I could tell people what I had found, politely, and they would agree with me. I have been doing so for thirteen years and, yet, still there are people who persist in the belief that vaccines cause autism and autoimmune disease and epilepsy and SIDS and a great many other horrible things. Even when I present study after study demonstrating vaccines are far safer than diseases and nutrition doesn’t prevent or cure them, there are still people who won’t agree. And the debate grows more and more contentious as people have gotten caught up in the ideas from the film Vaxxed, which I have seen, and believe in them, despite them all being proven false.

 

It is very frustrating.

 

I wish I could convey to those opposed to vaccines that we all just want children to be healthy. Those of us who advocate for vaccines are parents, adults with autism, adults with injuries from vaccine preventable diseases, researchers, doctors, nurses, and scientists. We aren’t paid to advocate for vaccines. I get accused of that all the time and it makes me very sad. Even if I was paid, which I am not, how would that negate the value of the thousands of safety studies from all over the world, most not conducted by pharmaceutical companies, that demonstrate scientific consensus showing vaccines benefits far outweigh risks?

 

I wish I understood why someone would believe a blog post from a holistic doctor selling an unproven treatment for autism but not a research scientist working for a children’s hospital. I wish I could help people opposed to vaccines understand that most “vaccine injuries” are really not caused by vaccines. I recently read a story of a child diagnosed with a tragic genetic condition that rarely enables the child to live past age two. The parents refused to believe the diagnosis and, instead, called it a vaccine injury. The child’s symptoms worsened, in keeping with the original diagnosis, and then she passed away shortly before age two. The story is tragic but I cannot understand how they can ignore the diagnosis. It doesn’t help anyone to blame vaccines for something that is genetic.

 

For me, too, this decision to vaccinate is about being part of a community. We advocate environmental awareness, in our house, and try to tread gently on earth. We recently switched to having all our sources of energy come from renewable resources. We take the bus often instead of driving a lot. We buy local food so our food’s global footprint is not large. Vaccinating is part of not being a selfish person, in my opinion, and understanding we all breathe the same air. We must take care of each other as well as the environment. I teach my children this lesson, as I want them to understand that the community is important, than the individual’s needs never outweigh the group’s needs.

 

I am not sure how we can bridge the divide between those who vaccinate and those who do not vaccinate. What I can do, however, is help those on the fence about vaccines understand that the rational argument is in favor of vaccines. In my online and local advocacy, I try to always be polite and rational. I hope that helps the science stand out clearly. I was the Washington State CDC Immunization champion for 2015 for my advocacy. When people post articles in which I am quoted or a stolen picture of my award, it is an opportunity to remind them they are proving I am not a paid advocate. To qualify for the award, I had to prove I have no financial ties to the pharmaceutical industry or government. I am proud of my advocacy and have never done anything disrespectful.

 

I have read a great deal about vaccines in the last 13 years, both pro- and anti-vaccine. I fully understand the ingredients, the safety studies, the risks, and the benefits of vaccines. To that end, I have started blogging to share what I have learned.

 

Kathleen Hennessy

2015 CDC Washington State Immunization champion

https://vaccinesworkblog.wordpress.com/