"This was the first time I had ever heard a paranoid conspiracy theory about Big Pharma," says Weir (which is not her real name, but more on that later). "My friend tried for three months to make him see reason and to understand that's not the case. He could not be swayed. He just believed companies made people sick to sell them medicine. I watched my friend beating his head into a wall.
"It was rather shocking to us because our clinic is known for not even allowing pharmaceutical reps to come in except under strict guidelines that include absolutely no freebies. They lost their friendship over this."
The clash was the result of a policy that Weir and other doctors at her practice instituted eight months ago after she read a newspaper article about a New England clinic. Doctors at that clinic had decided they were no longer going to accept patients who refused to vaccinate for nonmedical reasons.
Weir, who had watched the number of measles cases in the United Stages grow, thought it sounded like a good idea and decided to adopt the same policy. Two more doctors in the practice followed suit, then pediatrician friends she discussed it with and then more and more as dozens of doctors she knows quietly began approaching voluntary non-vaccination as a potential threat.
"In this practice, we have elderly patients who have compromised immune systems, and I often see children too young to vaccinate for measles while they transition from my family practice to a pediatrician," says Weir. "We had to consider our patients."
It's a policy that is becoming increasingly common nationwide. *The Physician's Computer Company, a firm that provides data handling for 1,000 pediatricians in America, ran a survey among its clients earlier this year to see how many refused unvaccinated patients. Nearly 500 responded, and 54 percent of those who did said that patients had to vaccinate or find another doctor.
"I didn't think it would be a majority," Chip Hart, director of strategic marketing at PCC and principal author of the study, told Think Progress. "My gut feeling was that it would be in the 30-40 percent range."
The change is not without controversy and maybe even danger for doctors. Weir says her clinic has already received emailed death threats, sent after the clinic instituted the policy, which she compares to the sort of communications abortion providers get. Of the many doctors we approached for this story who we were told were no longer accepting non-vaccination patients, only Weir would speak with us, and even then only through a pseudonym. Similarly, the doctors we contacted who we were told would accept such non-vax patients declined to speak beyond confirming that they did so.
The reason doctors are being forced to decide one way or the other is the return of diseases previously thought eradicated in the United States. In 2000, the United States was declared free of homegrown contagion of measles, something the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention attributes to the success of the vaccine invented by John F. Enders and Dr. Thomas C. Peebles in 1963. According to the CDC, prior to widespread vaccination, the virus infected millions of Americans, hospitalizing 48,000 annually and killing an average of 500 people a year. Complications from the disease can include permanent hearing loss, pneumonia and encephalitis leading to brain damage. Out of every 1,000 children who contract measles, one or two will die.
By 2004, America saw as few as 37 cases annually, all from exposure to disease brought in by foreign visitors. It's still the case that measles remains an imported virus, but outbreaks have become more common thanks to a growing anti-vaccination movement. Reluctance to vaccinate gained popular support following the publication of a long-since-debunked Lancet research paper by Andrew Wakefield in 1998 that claimed to show a connection between the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine and autism. Numerous studies were unable to reproduce Wakefield's results, and the paper was retracted amid concerns of unethical practices in his research and possible financial conflicts of interest on the part of Wakefield. He was later stripped of his license to practice medicine, but his findings were touted by celebrities such as Jenny McCarthy and Kristin Cavallari and continue to form the basis of many common objections to vaccination from parents, according to Weir.
"Their main concern is the autism," she says. "Even though there are a wealth of studies that show there's no causal effect, they think there is."