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Steve and Vicky Carrico watch their 5-month-old twin daughters, Ashley and Dalen, as they wiggle on their tummies in the living room of their Capistrano Beach home. Dressed in matching "I [heart] Mom" onesies, the wide-eyed girls coo softly while lifting their heads to gaze at their surroundings.
"I can't describe it," says Steve, a realtor. "I never knew there was such a hole in my life until they got here. I would do anything in the world for them."
Like all new parents, they want nothing more than to protect their children. And for the Carricos, this mandate includes fiercely guarding what gets injected into their bodies. When the babies were born, doctors said they would need the Hepatitis B vaccine, given to all newborns in the United States, before being discharged from the hospital. The Carricos refused.
"They don't need to be vaccinated for a sexually transmitted disease," Steve says with a tone of disdain. "Come on, they're babies! They're barely out of the womb, and it's like, 'Let's dope them up and stick them with needles!'"
Vicky, a stay-at-home mom, adds softly, "They're so little. Their immune systems aren't strong."
Since then, the couple has decided to skip or delay various vaccines recommended by government health agencies, believing the injections could have harmful side effects. "The human body was put together pretty darn good," says Steve, who has always believed in medication as a last resort. "God did a great job in giving us all the tools we need to heal ourselves."
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The Carricos are part of a growing group of moms and dads that questions the vaccine schedule set forth by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), a standard pediatricians have long seen as sacrosanct. It's a group with which doctors don't know what to do. In the parenting sphere, few issues are as polarizing as childhood vaccinations. Those who forgo some or all of the recommended children's shots do so for a spectrum of reasons, from concerns about toxicity to fears about autism to religious beliefs to a faith in "natural immunity" to a general distrust of the government agencies that approve vaccines and the manufacturers that profit from them.
Those who do vaccinate their children, along with a majority of medical experts and public-health officials, contend that most fears about vaccine safety are based on unproven science and that skipping vaccinations is fundamentally irresponsible—low vaccination rates can threaten the immunity of entire communities. In his book The Panic Virus, which delves into the vaccine wars in the U.S. and England, author Seth Mnookin writes, "If only there were a shot for irrational fears."
For years, the issue seemed to be black and white—moms and dads either gave kids all their shots or were ostracized by doctors and their communities. But now concerned parents are discovering what they see as refreshing middle ground. They're turning to Dr. Robert Sears, a Capistrano Beach pediatrician and author of The Vaccine Book, described as an "authoritative, impartial, fact-based guide to childhood vaccinations." In his turquoise, 335-page manual, which has sold more than 180,000 copies in the five years since it debuted, Sears pinpoints the vaccines he deems most crucial and presents his own alternatives to the CDC-recommended schedules. He backs up his claims with countless findings from medical papers, translating medical information into layman-friendly language. "This infection can be a real pain in the . . . diaper area," he explains of the rotavirus disease. Across the world, parents walk into their doctor's offices armed with his book, highlighted and dog-eared.
"It's a lot of common sense," says Steve, whose daughters are patients of Sears. "I'll take my chances with diseases that haven't been seen in America in 50 years. Sometimes, you gotta put your faith in somebody."
But whether Sears is the man to follow has been a focus of intense debate. A quick Google search on the Orange County doctor results in headlines such as "Cashing In On Fear: The Danger of Dr. Sears" and "Bob Sears: Bald-faced liar, devious dissembler, or both?" The book has been called "the bane of pediatricians everywhere" and Sears himself a "prophet of doom." Steven Novella, a writer for the medical website Science-Based Medicine, compares Sears' alternative stance to "trying to compromise between mutually exclusive positions, like young-earth creationism and evolution," adding, "it doesn't work." Sears' opponents criticize his downplaying of vaccine-preventable diseases, with some even blaming him indirectly for the 2008 measles outbreak in San Diego, which infected 11 people. The child who had brought back the disease from a trip to Europe was once Sears' patient.
Where does Sears stand on vaccines? He makes his proclamation in the opening line of The Vaccine Book: "I am a pro-vaccine doctor." He then follows this statement with "I am also a pro-information doctor, and today's parents are asking many more questions about vaccines than parents in decades past."
His open approach is what brings flocks of parents to his offices at Sears Family Pediatrics, a red-tile-roofed, Spanish-style building he shares with his dad, Dr. William Sears, author of the ubiquitous parenting guide The Baby Book and the father of attachment parenting. (The elder Sears catapulted to mainstream prominence earlier this year when he was profiled in a Time magazine piece that featured a woman breastfeeding an almost 4-year-old on the cover.) Taped onto the front desk is a newspaper article with a declarative headline: "Nursing a 3-year-old is normal, child experts say." Brochures stacked on wooden shelves offer statistics on autism and lists of resources. (One in 88 children—and 1 in 54 boys—is diagnosed with the disorder, according to the CDC.)