Josephine P. Briggs, M.D.
People turn to complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) seeking better health. Several studies have found an association between use of CAM and positive health behaviors such as getting regular exercise, not using tobacco products, and following a healthy diet. CAM use also has been associated with higher rates of vaccination for influenza, pneumococcus, and hepatitis B among adults. Unfortunately, however, this may not be the case for vaccinations in children.
A recently reported NCCAM-funded study in the Maternal and Child Health Journal showed that children in Washington State who received care from CAM providers were substantially less likely to get recommended immunizations and were more likely to be diagnosed with a vaccine-preventable disease. The investigators note that their findings do not provide an explanation for the association. For example, it is possible that the study's results reflect an increased tendency of parents who are already vaccine-hesitant to seek out CAM professionals, a direct influence of CAM providers on parents' attitudes, or another explanation. Nonetheless, as a physician and Director of NCCAM, I find these results troubling in and of themselves.
It is very difficult for most Americans to remember that polio and diphtheria regularly killed or permanently injured thousands of people in the United States yearly, as recently as the last century. In fact, polio has been eradicated in the United States and diphtheria is very rare because of vaccinations. However, these diseases have not yet been eliminated worldwide and could easily return to the United States. The Washington State study is especially troubling in light of reports from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that there has been a resurgence of certain vaccine-preventable diseases in the United States in recent years. For example, in 2010, 8,627 cases of whooping cough (pertussis) including 10 infant deaths were reported throughout California—the largest number of cases reported in 63 years.
The benefits of vaccination in preventing illness and death have been repeatedly proven and greatly outweigh the risks. I fully support the CDC's current evidence-based recommendations for pediatric vaccinations, and I urge parents to safeguard their children by following these recommendations. I also urge all health care provider organizations—including CAM organizations—to raise vaccine awareness among their members, and enlist them in efforts to help increase adherence to childhood vaccinations.
It is essential that we recognize the extraordinary success of childhood vaccination, and that we look to the abundant scientific evidence that documents the safety and vital role of vaccines in the health of our Nation.