The many problems with Dr. Bob’s alternative vaccine schedule

Dr. Bob Sears

As we struggle to reform the healthcare system, provide care for all, reduce disease and hold down cost, there are those who, for the sake of profit, would rather do the opposite. No, I’m not talking about drug companies or entrenched healthcare interests, although they are working mightily to undermine healthcare reform. I’m talking about people like “Dr. Bob” Sears, panderer to vaccine rejectionists.

Vaccination is preventive medical care at its finest, minimizing disease, relatively inexpensive and available to all. Vaccine rejectionists, and those who pander to them, are actively undermining extraordinarily effective preventive care; their actions will inevitably lead to increased disease, increased medical costs, and harm to innocent children. Indeed, in the case of measles, it has already begun to happen.

Even something as apparently harmless as an “alternate” vaccine schedule is dangerous. It increases the interval during which children are vulnerable, it leads to missed vaccination, and it massively increases the time and money required to provide healthcare to all of America’s children. Every minute spent refuting the nonsense of people like “Dr. Bob” is a minute where effective medical care is not being provided to many others in need.

The heart of pediatric care is prevention, so it is not surprising that the American Academy of Pediatrics is alarmed about the growing trend of withholding vaccination and alternate vaccine schedules. They have published a point-by-point refutation of the vaccine-rejectionism of Dr. Robert Sears, a man who has made a fortune by pandering to the fears of vaccine rejectionists.

The paper is entitled The problem with Dr. Bob’s alternative vaccine schedule and the authors are forthright in explaining they wrote the paper:

Many books misrepresenting the science of vaccines or vaccine safety have been published. None has been as influential as that published by Dr Robert Sears, The Vaccine Book: Making the Right Decision for Your Child…

Sears’ book … has already sold more than 40,000 copies… The popularity of Sears’ book centers in part on 2 schedules, called alternative and selective, that offer parents a way to avoid giving their children several vaccines at one time. Sears’ book is unique… Unfortunately, Sears sounds many antivaccine messages.

Dr. Sears makes two types of claims, opinion claims and empirical (factual claims). The opinion claims are designed to undermine trust in medical and public health officials. The empirical claims are factual claims that, in most cases, are false.

Dr. Sears makes two main opinion claims. First, he says that he, as a physician, knows very little about vaccines and it assumes that every other physician knows as little as he. I’m not sure where he went to medical school, but he ought to ask for his money back. It is simply impossible to believe that he didn’t learn about vaccines. Moreover, if he didn’t learn about vaccines in medical school, and he has no formal training in immunology or virology, why should we pay any attention to what he says about vaccines?

The second opinion claims is that public health agencies and pharmaceutical companies are not trustworthy. It is hardly news that pharmaceutical companies exist to make a profit. That tells us nothing, though, about whether a specific product is safe and effective. Moreover, Dr. Sears provides no evidence that public health agencies are not trustworthy. Most importantly, Dr. Sears does not address his personal conflict of interest; why should anyone believe him if he makes a profit on each alternate vaccine schedule that is sold?

Most of Sears’ empirical claims are easy to address. They’re flat out false or disingenuous. For example, Sears asserts that vaccine-preventable diseases are not that bad, though most are deadly, and he asserts that vaccination has eliminated acute diseases but caused chronic diseases. There’s simply no scientific evidence to support that claim.

Sears’ assertion that natural infection is better than vaccination is disingenuous. It’s true for those who survive the natural infection. It’s not particularly relevant for the thousands or millions who die. Moreover, for certain infections, survival may be accompanied by permanent disability such as severe scarring (smallpox) or paralysis (polio). That’s a steep price to pay for natural immunity.

One of the most disingenuous claims is also unethical. As the paper describes:

Perhaps the most disingenuous comment in the book is directed at parents who are afraid of the measles-mumps- rubella (MMR) vaccine. “I also warn [parents] not to share their fears with their neighbors,” writes Sears, “because if too many people avoid the MMR, we’ll likely see the diseases increase significantly.” In other words, hide in the herd, but do not tell the herd you’re hiding; otherwise, outbreaks will ensue…

This is why vaccine rejectionism is unethical. Dr. Sears’ warning implicitly acknowledges that vaccines are highly effective and that their effectiveness is dependent on herd immunity. Those are the benefits of vaccination. But vaccines also have burdens: side effects. Therefore, he advises parents to foist the burdens on others and claim the benefits for themselves … and that’s unethical.

The bottom line is rather straightforward. The only person who benefits from Dr. Bob’s alternative vaccine schedule is Dr. Bob. Children receive less protection, preventable disease is not prevented, and physicians waste massive amounts of time on refuting nonsense when they could be providing care to other children.

“Dr. Bob” should be ashamed, but I doubt he is.