PITCH: Pinellas Immunization Team for Community Health
March 09, 2014
By Samantha Staley, IBCLC, Immunization Champion, Disease Control Division, Florida Department of Health in Pinellas County
Immunizations have been a controversial topic since Edward Jenner’s
“cowpox” vaccine in the early 1800s. Well before the autism myth spurred
by Wakefield and the misinformation stirred up by Jenny McCarthy, Dr.
Sears, and modern day bloggers, vaccines have historically been met with
It is surprising that after witnessing the enormous
success of immunizations completely wiping out smallpox, nearly
eradicating polio, and saving more than three million lives every year,
some parents today are refusing vaccines for their children. And yet
many of them make it a priority to be sure their pet has all of their
shots. Is preventing rabies more important than preventing whooping
Due to a growing distrust of the medical community and
the pharmaceutical industry, and the proliferation of conflicting
information on the Internet, more parents are choosing not to vaccinate.
In 2012 in Pinellas County, the rate for fully immunized 2-year-olds
dropped nearly 10 percent, a dangerous threat to herd immunity. And with
the popular shift toward natural parenting and green living, it seems
that vaccines just don’t fit into that movement. One pediatrician I
spoke to said that several of his well-educated parents stated that it’s
just not fashionable to immunize.
As a well-educated mother and
lactation consultant who believes in natural parenting (I went to
Berkeley, breast-fed my daughter until she was almost five, and only buy
organic), I too had questions about vaccines and even spaced out my
daughter’s shots because I was afraid to “overload her system.” I have
since learned that my fears were unfounded. The amount of antigens
(substances that trigger an immune response) she was exposed to, from
all vaccines combined, is only 0.006 percent of the amount of antigens
she is exposed to in the environment by age six.1
we were all “natural” parents, but breast-feeding didn’t prevent the
smallpox outbreak in 1545 that killed 8,000 children in India, and cloth
diapers didn’t prevent the diphtheria epidemic in 1735 that killed 32
percent of all children in New England.
Passionate about raising
healthy children, and to the surprise of my friends, I ended up the
Immunization Champion for the Florida Department of Health in Pinellas
County. While I will not put artificial sweeteners in my 6-year-old’s
body, I will gladly have her vaccinated to prevent her from catching a
crippling or even fatal disease.
Of course, vaccines are not
without risk. As with anything we ingest or place on our skin, there is
potential for an adverse reaction. Who would have thought that a simple
peanut could cause a person with a severe allergy to go into shock, or
buying food at the supermarket could put you at-risk for food-borne
illness. Yet the cases of severe adverse reactions to vaccines are few
and far between. When we consider that immunizations may save your
child’s life, the benefits far outweigh the risks.
And most of
the perceived risks are unfounded. Not only were Wakefield’s studies
linking vaccines to autism proven to be false, but it was also
fraudulent. He had his medical license revoked in England. Shortly
thereafter, another objection was the preservative thimerosal. In 1999,
without any scientific evidence that the preservative caused harm,
thimerosal was removed from most vaccines. And what happened? Autism
rates continued to rise, so it couldn’t have been the vaccines.
Furthermore, studies show that those with autistic brains may have 67
percent more neurons in the prefrontal cortex, which can only occur at
or before birth. While some brain cells can grow after birth, nowhere
near this amount can suddenly develop at 12–18 months when the MMR
vaccine is given. This is often the time when autism is first
recognized, however, leading a lot of parents, eager for answers, to
point at the vaccines as the culprit.
Most people also don’t
realize that the mercury from vaccine preservatives is a one-time
exposure to a trace amount of ethyl or non-toxic mercury. Yet many of us
consume fish that contain a high level of methyl mercury, the third
most toxic poison that exists, and is known to cause neurological
damage. Yet we don’t think about that or any other causes. We want to
As for immunizations not being fashionable? I
understand the desire to live green, holistically, and parent naturally,
but we can still do that and immunize our children.
A child is
scarred by mumps, a 6-month-old baby in Orlando dies of pertussis, a
4-year-old girl in Jacksonville dies of influenza virus, and a teen who
dreams of becoming an athlete loses a limb to meningococcal infection.
Where is the fashion in that? And what about social responsibility?
Don’t we owe it to those with weakened immune systems to vaccinate our
children and create a wall of protection for those who don’t have the
choice of being vaccinated?
Immunization rates have been
declining and diseases that we thought were gone are coming back. The
U.S. is seeing a resurgence of whooping cough that hasn’t been witnessed
in over 50 years, and an increasing number of influenza deaths this
year. Some that have died were not immunized. If we continue this trend,
we’ll be looking at the same number of measles cases that we saw 17
years ago. In 2012, one fourth of all 2-year-olds in Pinellas County
were not fully immunized; a dangerous low that placed the entire county
at risk of outbreaks.
Last summer, Dr. Dharamraj, Director of
the Department of Health in Pinellas, decided it was time to take
action. An immunization campaign was launched to educate medical
providers and the community: Pinellas Immunization Team for Community
Health or PITCH, a team of over 40 community partners, was formed. Since
then, PITCH has conducted numerous community outreaches, presentations,
and medical provider trainings.
Dr. David Berman, head of
Infectious Disease at All Children’s Hospital, and a founding partner of
PITCH, explains why he got involved with this effort: “I have seen
children die from diseases that would have been prevented by childhood
immunization. I have stood at the bedside of families watching children
suffer and die. The tragedy is that this is preventable. My goal, along
with the committee, is to dispel the myths that parents may hear from
their social networks, Internet, television, and magazines.”
any of this effort making a difference? Yes. The 2013 Survey of
2-year-olds conducted by the Florida Department of Health shows that
Pinellas County is now up to nearly 85 percent vaccinated, a dramatic
improvement from the 75 percentage rate in 2012. But we can’t stop here.
The state goal is 90 percent for 2-year-olds and 95 percent for
kindergarteners, the minimum needed for solid herd immunity.
Greg Savel, the chairperson of PITCH, and president of Myrtle Ave
Pediatrics, believes things may be turning around and there is hope yet
that PITCH can put vaccines back in vogue: “We’ve already seen the
percentage of children in our community who are completely immunized on
time increasing because of the efforts of this incredible initiative.
Things are certainly moving in the right direction as PITCH continues to
grow and reach deeper into Pinellas County and beyond.”
The PITCH Immunization campaign has taken on “Invisible Threat,” with free public screenings.
“Invisible Threat” is a powerful film made by teens that examines
the vaccine crisis facing the U.S. The screenings are fun, free events
where parents and students can learn more about immunizations and get
straight answers to some of our biggest questions. Several public
screenings with expert panels are planned throughout the county.
Although there will probably always be some resistance to vaccines, it
does appear that parents are getting smarter and realizing that the
myths are just that: they’re myths. Nothing is more fashionable than
giving your child the best protection you can. Running the risk of
catching a vaccine preventable disease is no longer in vogue. Getting
If you are interested in getting involved with the immunization
campaign or would like to attend our next screening event, please call
the PITCH info line at: 727-820-4105 or follow us at https://www.facebook.com/PinellasImmy.
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