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Doctor Contrarian

Parents fearful of vaccines flock to him; experts denounce his stance.

March 07, 2005|Hilary E. MacGregor | Times Staff Writer

A pregnant mother from Topanga Canyon has brought her toddler son to Dr. Jay Gordon for a checkup. Her son received all the recommended vaccinations, but she wonders aloud if she should do the same for her second child, who is due in a few months.

It's a topic about which Gordon is passionate. Parents from around Southern California choose Gordon for his outspoken and controversial stance on vaccinations, driving from as far away as Santa Barbara and Long Beach.

They know he will lend a sympathetic ear to their concerns about the possible adverse side effects of childhood vaccinations -- even though several large scientific studies have failed to find a connection.

His openness to alternative approaches has earned him an avid following. With thousands of patients, his practice is so busy that he no longer accepts new patients.

"What is normal for the first year?" asks Robyn Forman, the pregnant mother, who has been seeing Gordon since her son turned 1.

"I prefer to give no vaccines or just the DPT during the first year," Gordon responds. "DPT is relevant because you can get whooping cough-diphtheria." He rattles off information: There have been no new polio cases in the U.S. for the last decade; it's highly unlikely that a young child would contract hepatitis B; there are only a few dozen cases of tetanus in this country each year.

"In my opinion, we vaccinate in an unscientific and potentially dangerous way," he says.

Gordon is not anti-vaccine. He acknowledges the benefits of vaccines, but prefers to vaccinate later and slower. No one knows for sure how many other doctors take a similar stance. But it is rare for a pediatrician to be so outspoken on the subject. Gordon's views put him at odds with virtually all of his colleagues. Experts on vaccination consider his attitude socially irresponsible, unscientific and just plain wrong.

Dr. James Cherry, a pediatrician at UCLA's David Geffen School of Medicine who has conducted vaccine research since the 1960s, and who has consulted for vaccine manufacturers, puts it more bluntly: "He is endangering the lives of children."

In recent years, childhood vaccinations have become a lightning rod for some parents who are concerned that their children may develop autism, epilepsy or learning disabilities from certain immunizations. While there is little or no scientific evidence to support links between these diseases and vaccines, the issue has become such a loaded topic between doctors and patients that the leading professional organization for pediatricians is preparing a formal statement -- due out this spring -- to provide guidance to doctors on how to deal with parents who are resistant to vaccinating.

Public health officials believe vaccinations are a matter of social responsibility. If enough doctors, and enough patients, choose not to vaccinate, it might endanger the public's health and allow deadly diseases that have been eradicated, or nearly so, to reemerge as significant threats. Gordon is steadfast in his controversial stance. He will repeat his views on vaccination to parents throughout the day. As patients pepper him with questions, he patiently answers.

"I have 15 to 20 patients from Santa Barbara," he says. "The reason is, no one will talk to them about vaccines. They need to talk."

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Targeting a dozen diseases

The number of recommended vaccinations for children up to 24 months has nearly tripled since 1988, according to the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Currently, the CDC recommends vaccination against 12 diseases. Because some vaccines must be given more than once, a child could get as many as 23 shots by age 2. While the timing of shots may vary with different doctors, a child might receive as many as six shots during a single doctor's visit.

Beyond the inconvenience of frequent doctor visits and children's fear of needles, the biggest source of parental concern about vaccines is the claim that these shots might be linked to a rise in autism rates. Between 1987 and 2002 there has been a more than six-fold increase in autism cases in California, according to a 2003 report by the state Department of Development Services. So far, researchers have been unable to explain the reason for the increase.

Because autism begins to manifest itself during the same period when young children are receiving many of their vaccinations, some parents believe that the vaccinations may have triggered the disorder. Thousands of parents across the country have filed lawsuits in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims alleging that thimerosal, a form of mercury used as a preservative in pediatric vaccines until 2002, was responsible for their children's autism or other neurological disorders.

No major scientific study has shown any link between vaccines and autism, or any other neurological disorder. But anecdotal stories by parents of what has happened following vaccinations -- often circulated on the Internet -- have heightened many parents' anxiety about shots.

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