By Paul Offit, MD
Editor’s Note: Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia physician and Vaccine Education Center Director Paul Offit, MD, is co-creator of the rotavirus vaccine, Rotateq®, and an advocate for vaccine safety, childhood immunization, and stricter vaccine waiver requirements. He also is the Maurice R. Hilleman Professor of Vaccinology and professor of Pediatrics, Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. In 2015, Dr. Offit was inducted into the American Academy for Arts and Sciences and joined the class of 2015 Fellows elected by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which recognizes individuals for their contributions to science and technology. In 2016, Dr. Offit won the Franklin Founder Award from the city of Philadelphia, the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Philadelphia Business Journal, and the Jonathan E. Rhoads Medal for Distinguished Service to Medicine from the American Philosophical Society.
Research takes many forms, and while progress is often the result of work conducted away from the public eye, sometimes the greatest potential for impact is the opportunity to talk about science and scientific discoveries in direct conversations with the public. Sixteen years ago, we were compelled to step away from the lab bench and do just this. A
t the time, we had funding from the National Institutes of Health to study rotavirus immunology and were pleased that previous efforts had resulted in the development of a rotavirus vaccine that would protect infants from this potentially dangerous cause of severe dehydration and death. We could have continued generating data and enhancing the understanding of immunology and infectious diseases, but we were aware of the concerns around vaccine safety and the intense scrutiny around these life-saving tools. As scientists, we were in a position to review and discuss the science of vaccines, and, so, the Vaccine Education Center (VEC) at CHOP was born.
Over the years, the availability of and access to information has exploded. We often receive questions from well-intentioned, confused parents just trying to sort out the information they have found. We explain the science around vaccine concerns, address new questions as they arise, and seek to reach parents and the public in new and changing communications environments.
When we started the VEC, one of the main concerns about vaccine safety related to whether the MMR vaccine (measles, mumps and rubella) caused autism as purported by a researcher from the U.K. We reviewed the science and new studies as they poured in and determined that the MMR vaccine does NOT cause autism. We did interviews, made movies, talked to parents, and designed tools that healthcare professionals could share to explain the studies and get the most accurate information disseminated to the public.
Over time, as the MMR-autism theory was discredited, other concerns about a potential relationship between vaccines and autism arose. Parents wondered if too many vaccines caused autism or whether vaccine ingredients, such as mercury and aluminum, caused autism. Each time, we reviewed the science, evaluated new studies, developed materials, and even wrote a book, to help the public understand the state of the science. In all cases, scientifically solid, reproducible studies showed clear evidence that vaccines do NOT cause autism.
Researchers at the Center for Autism Research at CHOP and elsewhere are working to better understand the underlying causes of autism. Unfortunately, while scientists continue to explore autism-related gene pathways and how they may interact in a complex manner with each other and with the environment, concerns about things like vaccines are likely to linger for some people.
New vaccines, such as the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine, also have been surrounded by questions of vaccine safety. In addition to developing tools, such as Q&A sheets and videos, to address the most common questions and concerns related to the HPV vaccine, we also found that the public had many questions related to HPV disease as well. To that end, we developed a special page, www.prevent-HPV.org, where we publish answers to questions we have been asked.
The widespread access to information has made the role of scientists interacting with the public even more vital, as they try to understand scientific language and writing, appreciate the evolution of scientific understanding, and evaluate risks and benefits in this framework. It has also made it imperative that students learn how to effectively evaluate information, understand the scientific method, and learn concepts related to health, immunity, and disease. We are developing modules for use by teachers of elementary-aged to college-aged students. The modules are being designed to meet scientific teaching standards, reach across subjects, and engage students in unique and interesting lessons.
Being able to evaluate the quality and source of information has become an essential skill not just related to vaccines or science in general, but to all aspects of communication — and scientists must be part of the conversation.
If you’re interested in learning about vaccines and vaccine safety, the VEC offers a variety of programs and materials, including a program for parents called Parents PACK, a free mobile app, an online trivia game, and a vaccine hero online game and trading cards for children, called Vax Pack Hero. Find out more, review vaccine information, or contact the VEC at vaccine.chop.edu.