Dr. Bob Sears has made a name for himself – and gathered together a collection of fans and clients – by advocating against vaccines while advocating for them.
The Orange County doctor’s spiel goes like this: Vaccines work. Unlike the claims of some anti-vaxxers that immunization isn’t very good at preventing epidemics, he has told pregnant women and new mothers that vaccines should be praised for our low disease rates.
And that, he tells parents, is a great reason to be selfish and not vaccinate their own children.
“I do think the disease danger is low enough where I think you can safely raise an unvaccinated child in today’s society,” he told a group of parents in Rancho Mirage in 2014, according to a report in the Los Angeles Times. “It may not be good for the public health. But … for your individual child, I think it is a safe enough choice.”
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Not what our society needs – self-absorbed parents preying on the socially responsible families who vaccinate their kids.
Add those kids to the children who honestly can’t be vaccinated, because of seriously compromised immune systems, and the children who get their shots but don’t derive immunity from them, and you’re talking about a diminished herd – the kind of situation that led to the Disneyland-related measles outbreak in 2014 and prompted the Legislature to get serious about eliminating the personal belief and religious exemptions for vaccines.
Now, Sears is in hot water with the state Medical Board for allegedly writing an excuse note that allowed a little boy not to receive any vaccinations, even though Sears never bothered gathering medical evidence that vaccines were dangerous for the child. California’s tough new vaccination law allows children not to be immunized when there’s a valid medical reason.
But the case for which Sears faces discipline, including possible loss of his medical license, is puzzling. The 2-year-old’s mother brought him to Sears in 2014, at a time when the stronger law hadn’t been passed.
A personal-belief exemption was perfectly valid at the time. Why was he even writing a letter? Nor was the child close to kindergarten age. How did the case even reach the Medical Board’s attention? This is the same board that for years paid scant attention to doctors who were wildly overprescribing opioids for a fee.
I’d like to think this has nothing to do with witch-hunting Sears simply because he’s Sears, deplorable as I find his shtick. And there is more to the case, aspects that raise worrisome questions about Sears’ practice of medicine.
According to the Medical Board, the mother told Sears that when her son had gotten his three-month immunizations a couple of year before, he had gone limp for a day and not urinated.
According to the state, Sears never obtained the toddler’s previous records and never determined exactly what had happened. Moreover, in the letter of excuse he then wrote, the mother’s description became kidney shutdown and severe encephalitis – serious medical situations calling for a medical workup. Sears also failed to look into the child’s headaches after he reported being hit by a hammer, according to the Medical Board.
But why did the Medical Board also throw in the complaint about Sears’ actions exposing the toddler and other children to preventable diseases? Thousands of parents have done that annually, and their pediatricians, agreeing or not, have gone along.
As the new vaccine law takes effect, there have been reports about doctors willing to cater to vaccination opponents by looking for any excuse to write a medical exemption letter. The state is right to try to prevent this from happening – but it should make sure that it’s going after Sears for the right reasons.
Karin Klein is a journalist in Orange County who focuses on education, science and food policy. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.