Celebrity Doctor’s Alternative Approach To Vaccines Frustrates Disease Experts

Celebrity Doctor’s Alternative Approach To Vaccines Frustrates Disease Experts

By Paloma Esquivel, Los Angeles Times

Maureen Viereck arrived at Dr. Bob Sears’ office in Dana Point, Calif., with her four-year-old son to meet the pediatrician and discuss her concerns about vaccines.

She worries that immunizations cause health problems, and friends had told her about Sears and his book.

“I’m vegan,” she said, and in her circle, word of Sears “sort of traveled through the grapevine.”

That same day, Karissa and Richard Sandoval showed up at the pediatrician’s office with two-month-old twins Andrew and William.

“You don’t find too many alternative-friendly doctors where we live,” Karissa said.

In the seven years since The Vaccine Book: Making the Right Decision for Your Child was published, it has sold more than 250,000 copies and Sears has become a celebrity among parents who see danger in immunization.

While the vast majority of physicians are troubled by the anti-vaccination movement, Sears, 45, lends a sympathetic ear. About half his patients forgo vaccines entirely. To others, he offers “Dr. Bob’s” alternative and selective vaccination schedules, which delay or eliminate certain immunizations.

At a conference this year in Rancho Mirage, Sears told a roomful of pregnant women, new mothers and health-care professionals that vaccines work well and are responsible for the nation’s low disease rate, something parents who don’t want to immunize can take advantage of.

“I do think the disease danger is low enough where I think you can safely raise an unvaccinated child in today’s society,” he said. “It may not be good for the public health. But … for your individual child, I think it is a safe enough choice.”

That approach frustrates infectious disease experts.

“We eliminated endemic measles in the U.S. in 2000. It’s now 2014 and we’re at 400 cases. Why?” Dr. Paul Offit, chief of infectious diseases at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, said in an interview in June. The number of cases has since risen to nearly 600. “Because people listen to Bob Sears. And, frankly, I blame him far more than I do the Jenny McCarthys of this world. Because he’s a doctor. And he should know more.”

California parents, at twice the rate of seven years ago, are choosing not to vaccinate their kindergarten-age children. Public health experts said was a factor ub re-emergence of measles and could lead to outbreaks of other diseases.

In a concept known as herd immunity, communities must be vaccinated at a high rate to avoid widespread disease outbreaks. For measles and whooping cough, at least 92 percent of community needs to be immune, experts say.

The 22 measles cases reported this year in Orange County, said Dr. Matt Zahn of the county’s health agency, appear to have started with people who traveled outside the country and spread to several unvaccinated children.

“Dr. Sears doesn’t regard himself as a vaccine refuser. He regards himself as someone who advocates a more gradual immunization process,” Zahn said. “I think this situation illustrates the dangers inherent to that.”

In an interview, Sears defended his philosophy of offering alternative immunization schedules, saying they “allow parents to get vaccinations in a way they’re more comfortable” with.

“If they’re given no option, I would say some of the patients are going to choose not to do them at all.”

He has also argued that public health officials and the media can exaggerate the dangers of outbreaks.

When measles cases began showing up in Orange County this year, Sears asked on his Facebook page why people were panicking. “Here’s one reason: the ^$#@*&%&*$# media,” he wrote.

The Vaccine Book is part of the Sears Parenting Library, which includes works by Sears’ father. Dr. William Sears — or “Dr. Bill” — is a frequent TV show guest who advocates breast-feeding, bed sharing and other attachment parenting techniques.

Robert Sears became interested in vaccines as a medical student after reading DPT: A Shot in the Dark, a 1985 book that argued that the whooping cough vaccine was dangerous. (The makeup of the vaccine has since been changed.) Sears said the book, which helped spark a backlash against vaccines, exposed him to ideas he wasn’t hearing in school.

When he started practicing in Orange County in 1998, he began offering patients a delayed vaccination schedule. In The Vaccine Book, Sears lays out his alternatives — and what he says are the risks and benefits of inoculations.

For example, he recommends delaying the start of the varicella vaccination for chickenpox from age one until two; the polio vaccination from two months to nine months and the hepatitis A vaccination from one until seven. He also advises parents concerned about autism to delay the measles vaccination until their children are four or five.

Sears’ book offers his schedules alongside one recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Dr. Carrie Byington, chairwoman of the academy’s committee on infectious diseases, said Sears’ recommendations are “not based in science.”

“The approved schedule in the United States is the schedule that has been shown to be safe and effective,” she said. “The Institute of Medicine, as well as many, many studies, have confirmed this again and again.”

A 2009 article in the journal Pediatrics by Offit and Charlotte A. Moser, assistant director of the vaccine education center at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, criticized Sears for spreading misinformation.

His book, they said, underplays the dangers of vaccine-preventable diseases, wrongly suggests that vaccines don’t receive in-depth testing and research, and confuses reported vaccine-related side effects with proven effects.

“Unfortunately, Sears, who wants parents to make informed decisions, has written a book that will largely misinform them,” they wrote.

In a response posted on his website, Sears called the article misleading and said the authors wrongly characterized the book as anti-vaccine.

“I believe that vaccine books that only show one side of the issue aren’t an effective educational tool,” he wrote.

While concern about vaccines often is linked to autism — a connection thoroughly debunked by scientists — many parents say they are worried about the large number of recommended inoculations.

California mandates that kindergartners have proof of nine immunizations, while the CDC recommends young children receive 14 — some of which require several doses administered during separate doctor’s visits. For parents who are overwhelmed by those numbers and have little direct experience with infectious diseases like measles, Sears’ approach can be appealing.

Photo: Don Bartletti/Los Angeles Times/MCT

Teacher Placed On Leave After Allegation Of Mock Hanging

Teacher Placed On Leave After Allegation Of Mock Hanging

By Paloma Esquivel, Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES — A California charter school teacher has been placed on leave after allegedly singling out an African-American student to demonstrate a hanging during a class trip.

Scharrell Jackson says a teacher at Oxford Preparatory Academy in Mission Viejo volunteered her 14-year-old son, the only African-American in his class, to participate in a simulated hanging during a living history field trip about the Civil War.

“I don’t think any child, especially an African-American child, given our heritage … should be called to participate in that,” Jackson said.

“If a child chooses to participate, so be it. But my child did not make that choice.”

Keith Fink, the attorney for the Orange County school, said the teacher was placed on leave, and an investigation was conducted and is now complete. He declined to say whether the teacher would return to the job, saying only that another instructor is now in the classroom and that “the school year is almost over.”

“A field trip that was designed with the best of intentions to educate the students about a very important period in U.S. History is being falsely turned into some sort of racial event,” Fink said in an email.

“You can ask any of the students that were on the field trip, the parent chaperons or the employee from Riley’s Farm — all will tell you that the student was not asked to do this.”

James Riley, chief executive of Riley’s Farm in Yucaipa, Calif., where the school field trip took place, said in a statement that the demonstration was about military discipline and the punishment soldiers faced for desertion. During the session, a historian asked the teacher to pick children to participate “who like drama and who can speak before a group of people.”

During the demonstration, the historian holds a noose as a prop.

“It is NEVER put over a child’s head,” the statement said. “We understand, of course, that certain images (the Confederate States flag and uniform, for example) can be seen as offensive to some groups. However, there is simply no way to conduct a living history teaching experience without using the clothing and props of the era.”

Jackson said whether the noose was placed over her son’s head is beside the point.

“I think that particular station and them having a child put their head in the noose, whether they put it in there or not is irrelevant, the bottom line is to have an African-American boy stand up there … lacks judgment. Period,” she said.

Jackson said she learned about the incident the day after the late April field trip, when her son did not want to go to school and said he did not believe his teacher liked him. She said the alleged incident is not the first time her son has been subjected to racial insensitivity from the teacher.

Jackson took her concerns to the Orange County Human Relations Commission, whose members are appointed by the Board of Supervisors and OC League of Cities to deal with issues of prejudice and discrimination in the county. Executive Director Rusty Kennedy met with Jackson and the school’s principal the day after the incident.

The noose is particularly fraught as a symbol of hate toward African Americans, Kennedy said. “To use them lightly, make fun of them, we all need to know better than that.

“Only 2% of the population in Orange County is African American. There needs to be some awareness,” he said.

Jackson said the school should have handled her concerns with more sensitivity. She initially complained to the school’s principal the day after the incident, but the teacher was not placed on leave until she reached out to representatives of the Capistrano Unified School District, which approves charter schools to operate in the district, she said.

“The educational institution is supposed to be a place where not only children go to learn but they are supposed to be able to build their self-esteem, to build their character,” Jackson said.

Fink, the school’s attorney, said the incident has  been blown out of proportion.

“The mother who was not present at the event has made numerous false statements to the media,” he said in an email. “The whole issue her(e) should be a non issue. Field trips are wonderful outings where all students have the ability for a culturally enriching experience.”