NOVA Vaccines Documentary to Air Sept. 10 on PBS

Family Physician Featured in the Film

September 03, 2014 03:56 pm Chris Crawford

Across the United States and around the world, more children are getting sick and dying from preventable diseases because their parents are misinformed and choose to skip their vaccinations. But a NOVA documentary( that will air Wednesday, Sept. 10, at 9 p.m. EDT on PBS (check your local listings) aims to set the record straight and help answer the questions these well-meaning -- if misguided -- parents bring to family physicians' offices every day.

Joumana Chandab poses with her healthy son, Osman, who battled pertussis as a 7-week-old infant in Melbourne, Australia.

According to a PBS news release(, Vaccines -- Calling the Shots( will answer the following questions for concerned parents: "How and why do vaccines work?" "What are the biggest concerns and misconceptions?" and "What are the risks to the child and society when people decide to forgo immunization?"

The hourlong broadcast explores the history and science behind vaccinations, tracks vaccine-preventable disease outbreaks and explains the risks of opting out of scheduled immunizations. It also encourages parents to ask questions and use the best available evidence to make their vaccination decisions. The answers come from research scientists, pediatricians, psychologists, anthropologists, parents who are wrestling with vaccine-related questions and family physician Simon Fensterszaub, D.O., who practices at Quality Health Center in Brooklyn, N.Y.

What the Film Covers

More than 90 percent of Americans vaccinate their children, and most do so according to the recommended schedule. Yet many parents still have questions about the safety of vaccines, and at least 10 percent of them choose to delay or skip their children's shots.

Story highlights
  • A NOVA documentary that will air Wednesday, Sept. 10, at 9 p.m. EDT on PBS aims to answer concerned parents' vaccination questions.
  • The hourlong broadcast explores the history and science behind vaccinations, tracks vaccine-preventable disease outbreaks and explains the risks of opting out of scheduled shots.
  • The documentary features family physician Simon Fensterszaub, D.O., who saw the first confirmed case of measles during a 2013 outbreak in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Highlighting real cases and placing them in historical context, the film demonstrates just how fast diseases can spread when a community's immunity barrier breaks down. The documentary chronicles a 2013 measles outbreak in Brooklyn, N.Y., in which 58 people were infected, including two pregnant women. Fensterszaub, who has been practicing family medicine for six years, saw the first confirmed case of the highly contagious disease in his office.

By the time that first case at Quality Health Center was confirmed, two more sick patients had arrived for treatment, and, subsequently, many more cases presented. So Fensterszaub set up special evening hours to see patients who were suspected measles carriers.

"I started to get calls from other doctors' offices asking, 'Do you mind if we send over patients who we suspect have measles during your evening office hours?' Fensterszaub told AAFP News. "So we were like the hub. Because of that, the outbreak was controlled pretty quickly."

He said he hopes what happened with vaccine detractors in Brooklyn during and after the measles outbreak also happens as a result of the upcoming documentary.

"Every neighborhood has its vaccine refusers, and in our area, they were coming in to get vaccinated (with the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine) during the outbreak," Fensterszaub said. "So that is what I am hoping the film will do -- alleviate everyone's fears and get them a little more comfortable with something we have been doing for 100 years."

Also in the film, Paul Offit, M.D., a pediatrician and infectious disease expert at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, offers his perspective on the vulnerable immune systems of young children, the history of vaccines, and how diseases re-emerge when immunization rates decrease.

Simon Fensterszaub, D.O., practices family medicine at Quality Health Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he saw the first confirmed case of measles during a 2013 outbreak.

A group of new mothers in San Francisco explain their concerns about adverse reactions to vaccination in the documentary. Brian Zikmund-Fisher, Ph.D., a psychologist and risk specialist at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, puts this risk in perspective: "You'd need about 10 football stadiums, each with 100,000 people, to find a single serious allergic reaction to a vaccine," he said in the news release.

The film also features Alison Singer, president of the Autism Science Foundation, and her daughter Jodie, who has autism. Singer cites the overwhelming scientific evidence refuting a link between vaccines and autism and discusses the lingering adverse effects of a long-discredited vaccine study on the public's perception of that so-called link. The documentary further explores the lack of an autism connection with new science from Daniel Geschwind, M.D., that reveals the disorder's genetic causes.

Finally, the film follows Amy Middleman, M.D., M.P.H., chief of adolescent medicine at the University of Oklahoma College of Medicine, as she consults with patients and their parents on the safety and effectiveness of the HPV vaccine.

Using the Film as a Conversation Starter

Vaccines -- Calling the Shots offers an opportunity for family physicians to broach the topic of vaccination with parents and patients.

Jennifer Frost, M.D., medical director for the AAFP Health of the Public and Science Division, said that parents who choose to not vaccinate think they are doing what is best for their child. But she hopes that exposure to the scientific facts about vaccines -- that they are safe and effective -- will convince parents that by not vaccinating, they are actually putting their children at risk.

She added that because PBS is generally a trusted source, having access to the film could aid physicians in educating parents who are somewhat leery of vaccines.

"I might recommend that vaccine-hesitant parents view it and then make a return visit for further discussion," Frost said. "Between the information in the film and a strong recommendation from their family physician, some patients may be convinced to protect their children from vaccine-preventable illnesses."

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