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Sears, who goes by "Dr. Bob" to avoid confusion, sits in an exam room after sending home a little patient with a high-five and a sticker of her choice. The bespectacled 43-year-old wears a polo shirt, khakis and a stethoscope around his neck and looks as though he could be your high-school science teacher.
"Anyone who thinks I'm a radical hasn't read my book or hasn't met me," he says with a gentle smile. "I'm just a regular, small-town doctor."
The families that come to him, he says, are often fed up with the condescension they've experienced at other doctors' offices. Some have a baby who once had a bad reaction to a vaccine, yet the doctor wouldn't alter the vaccine schedule. Others have been barred from practices that won't accept patients who aren't immunized. Roughly 25 percent of his patients do not vaccinate, and another 25 percent partially vaccinate. Sears takes them all. "Vaccines are probably the only area of medicine that we're not allowed to question," Sears says. "Doctors are very happy to answer questions all day, but as soon as someone asks about vaccines, some sort of alarm goes off and it's suddenly, 'Oh, no, you're one of those parents.' I don't know why that is."
So Sears sees his role as a bridge between the medical community and those skeptical of it, declaring that vaccinations don't have to be an all-or-nothing decision. "More and more parents are wanting to do vaccines differently, and if we keep kicking them out of our offices, we're going to have fewer vaccinated kids," he says. "I see using alternative vaccination approaches as a way of keeping vaccination rates higher and preserving our nation's immunity."
And it may just be effective. He's finding that some parents who once rejected vaccines altogether are easing into them with his modifications tailored for their individual needs.
"A doctor is finally listening to them," he says.
* * *
Vaccines protect us in two ways. On an individual level, they expose the body to a weakened, usually harmless form of a disease, allowing the immune system to strengthen its defenses in order to fight that disease if it encounters it again. On a societal scale, when a certain threshold of a population is vaccinated, it creates what's known as "herd immunity." Diseases need hosts in order to survive, so if the vast majority of people in a given area is protected, a disease has nowhere to go and disappears. For decades, vaccines all but wiped out many diseases in the U.S. that once killed millions, including smallpox, polio, measles, diphtheria and bacterial meningitis. The only children who went unimmunized were those who had medical issues or whose parents couldn't afford the shots, a problem now remedied through federal funds.
In 1998, the public's confidence was shaken when British medical journal The Lancet published a study linking the common MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine to the onset of autism. The author, Andrew Wakefield, had found traces of the measles virus, presumably from the shot, in a dozen autistic children, eight of whom developed regressive symptoms soon after receiving the vaccination. But the paper was later discredited by scientists. In 2010, after an in-depth investigation concluded that Wakefield was guilty of dishonesty and misconduct, the journal retracted the study, with editors noting, "It was utterly clear, without any ambiguity at all, that the statements in the paper were utterly false."
Meanwhile, when her son Evan was diagnosed with autism, actress and former Playboy pinup Jenny McCarthy became one of the world's most prominent advocates for autism, writing several best-selling books in which she claimed the MMR vaccine had probably contributed to her child's disorder. Medical professionals blasted McCarthy for spreading what they saw as dangerous misinformation. Parents with autistic children, many who were diagnosed not long after they were vaccinated, hailed the actress as the "voice" of the medical mystery. The fiery debate intensified when the self-proclaimed "mother warrior" went on Oprah in 2007 and proudly told the audience, "The University of Google is where I got my degree."
Years before the wave of panic had been set off, Sears, a graduate of San Clemente High School and Biola University, began his own road of questioning as a first-year medical student at Georgetown University. He and his wife, Cheryl, had a new baby, and the young family was living with a friend during the transition to the new city. The friend happened to be an early vaccine-rejector and had Sears read Harris Coulter and Barbara Loe Fisher's 1985 book, A Shot In the Dark. It had sparked the first modern popular concern about the risk of neurological damage from vaccines, in this case the DTP vaccine, which doctors no longer use.
"When the book came out, a lot of people didn't believe it," Sears says. "I didn't believe it either. I'd always been taught that vaccines don't cause any bad side effects and that there were no worries whatsoever."
But the book cited numerous scientific articles, and Sears was intrigued. So outside of class, he'd spend his days in the medical library reading every paper he could find on childhood vaccines. A soon-to-be pediatrician, the information was relevant to his career, but he also wanted to know if he had done the right thing by giving his infant son, Andrew, all the standard shots. "I didn't want to just listen to all the mainstream messages that were being taught to me without reading the research myself," he says. "I wanted to investigate."