In 2008, mass media coverage of vaccines seemed more focused on pop celebrity fights, pro- and con-, versus scientific revelations. Will 2009 yield more knowledge and less confusion?

2008 was something of an Amanda Peet-versus-Jenny McCarthy show, pro v. con, taking place on the covers of People magazine and in YouTube videos.

But just in the past few weeks, there’s been a subtle shift in news about vaccines toward more solid information. The headline points are:

  • Minnesota children came down with the Hib virus, with blame going first to the Hib vaccine shortage and possibly, too, to 3 in 5 of the children not being vaccinated.
  • Dr. Paul Offit heated up the vaccine debate with Dr. Robert Sears.
  • A landmark scientific study came out of Italy that rejects the possible link between vaccines and autism.
  • The Executive Vice President of Autism Speaks resigned.
  • There’s money for vaccines in the economic stimulus package.

The CDC issued a report on January 23 that five new cases of Hib were reported in Minnesota in 2008 — including one death. Minnesota has seen an increase in Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib) cases in children younger than 3 years of age. The children affected were either mostly unimmunized or partially immunized. The Minnesota scenario has impassioned the CDC to raise two key issues: first, that an ample and safe supply of vaccines should be available for the public’s health; and second, that herd immunity is compromised when people postpone or totally avoid receiving scheduled vaccinations. As a result of the Hib scenario, the CDC initiated an advance surveillance program for Hib throughout the US.

Dr. Paul Offit, as they say, wrote The Book, on autism and vaccines, Autism’s False Prophets –ruling out the causal relationship between vaccines and autism. His article in Pediatrics on the topic appeared in December 2008, refuting Dr. Robert Sears’ book which argues against sticking to the CDC’s recommended vaccine schedule for children. His latest column appeared in January’s Clinical Infectious Disease journal, titled, “Vaccines and Autism: A Tale of Shifting Hypotheses.”

The Italian study on was funded by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. Among 1,403 Italian children who were given whopping cough vaccines in the early 1990s, researchers found small differences between patients who got different amounts of thimerosal — the preservative that keeps vaccines stable. Only one case of autism was found — in the group that got the lower level of thimerosal.

Finally, in mid-January, Allison Tepper Singer, an executive vice president of Autism Speaks, resigned from her position. A Newsweek interview quotes Singer’s statement that, “Dozens of credible scientific studies have exonerated vaccines as a cause of autism. I believe we must devote limited funding to more promising avenues of autism research.”

Health Populi’s Hot Points: Along with these headlines, there’s another – money in the stimulus package for immunizations, community health clinics, and increased support for pandemic flu vaccines. 2009 could be the turnaround year when it comes to public opnion and immunizations, bolstered by more research and sound reporting on the safety of vaccines.

Alex Koppelman wrote about health in the stimulus package in Salon last week, “Take the $954 million directed to the CDC’s Section 317 Immunization Program referenced above. That program is the primary source of funding for state immunization efforts, and at least one study, from 2006, found that it’s extremely successful. [I]ncreases in Section 317 funding were significantly and meaningfully associated with higher rates of vaccination coverage; a $10 increase in per capita funding corresponded with a 1.6-percentage-point increase in vaccination coverage,” the study’s authors wrote. “Policymakers charged with funding public health programs should consider this study’s findings, which indicate that money allocated to vaccine activities translates directly into higher vaccine coverage rates.” And, of course, higher vaccine coverage rates mean lower healthcare costs down the line.

Thus, as increasing immunization rates can improve public health, they may also improve the economy in their uniquely healthy way.