On September 2, 2016, the Medical Board of California filed an accusation against Dr. Robert Sears, a Capistrano Beach pediatrician and author of several books, including a comprehensive guide to vaccines.
The Medical Board of California claimed Sears “was grossly negligent in his care and treatment of J.G., a minor, who he saw for six office visits between April 2014 and May 2015.”
According the Medical Board, the first cause for discipline is that Sears did not follow the standard of care. The Board explains: “The standard of care requires that a physician evaluating a patient for possible reaction to vaccines obtain a detailed history of the vaccines previously received as well as the reaction/reactions that occurred. Based on that information the physician should provide an evidence-based recommendation for future immunizations.”
But, say several doctors and supporters of Sears, according to the Medical Board’s own documentation, this is exactly what Sears did.
When Sears saw the toddler for the first time on April 3, 2014, he was told by the boy’s mother that her son had had two concerning vaccine reactions.
The boy “shut down stools and urine for 24 hours with 2 month vaccines and [was] limp ‘like a ragdoll’ lasting 24 hours and not himself for a week after 3 month vaccines.” In a letter dated April 13, 2014, excusing J.G. from future vaccines, says Sears indicated that “the patient’s kidneys and intestines shut down after prior vaccination and that at three months the patient suffered what appears to be a severe encephalitis reaction for 24 hours, starting approximately ten minutes after his vaccines, with lethargy, limpness, and poor responsiveness.”
An evidence-based recommendation for future immunizations
“Based on the symptoms the child suffered after previous vaccinations (as described by the mom in the accusation), I would say Dr. Sears was being grossly conscientious,” asserts Shira Miller, M.D., a Los Angeles physician who is board certified in internal medicine and has been practicing medicine for 14 years, via e-mail.
Deborah Gordon, M.D., an Ashland, Oregon, family physician who has been practicing medicine for 30 years, including five years in California, agrees. Gordon says the kind of reaction described by J.G.’s mother was “absolutely cause for concern.” A three-month-old baby who remains limp for 24 hours immediately after being vaccinated, Gordon says, is suffering from a neurological insult.
“That shrieking cry or high fever isn’t because the spot of the vaccine still hurts,” Gordon points out. “It is because an inflammatory reaction is going on in the child’s system, including in the brain.”
Encephalitis is not only a known side effect of infant vaccines, it is one of the vaccine injuries compensated for by the US government’s vaccine court, an independent, no-fault court established by the 1986 National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act that has paid $3.4 billion to families for vaccine injuries. Consumers, via a surcharge on every vaccine, fund the court.
According to the Vaccine Injury Table, which is the US government’s listing of covered vaccines and associated injuries: “For children less than 18 months of age…an acute encephalopathy is indicated by a significantly decreased level of consciousness lasting for at least 24 hours.” That sounds identical to what happened to Bob Sears’s patient.
“Sears acted appropriately and in the best interests of the patient,” argues Santa Rosa physician Robert Rowen, M.D., who has been practicing medicine for 40 years. “Based on what I know of the case, his determination that vaccines were counter-indicated was very warranted.”
Tina Kimmel, Ph.D., who has a master’s in public health from the University of California at Berkeley and who worked for the Immunization Branch of the California Department of Public Health for six years, agrees.
“I have not seen any evidence that he committed negligence,” Kimmel says. “He was actually being quite responsible as a physician towards that family. It makes me feel that he is just being scapegoated because he doesn’t toe the line.”
The standard of care is to ignore negative reactions to vaccines
The Medical Board has taken issue with Sears partly because they allege that he did not request documentation in writing from the patient’s previous doctor. But this allegation makes one Ventura County pediatrician I spoke to off the record exasperated. When a mom brings a child to the doctor and explains her son has had a fever of a certain temperature, this doctor points out, we do not insist on a screen shot of the thermometer or written proof that the child was sick.
Cammy Benton, M.D., a family physician who practices in a small town outside of Charlotte, North Carolina, says relying on a mother’s description of her baby’s two previous adverse vaccine reactions is the right thing for doctors to do for another reason. According to Benton, many doctors refuse to document or even acknowledge when a child has a negative reaction to a round of vaccines.
“My daughter had two vaccine-exemption-worthy reactions,” says Benton, who has been practicing medicine for 12 years and has three young children. “In spite of me telling her doctor in person and writing a letter to the doctor about it, those reactions are still not in her charts! You can tell doctors all you want about vaccine reactions, but they don’t want to believe you.”
Benton had learned in medical school that vaccine reactions are extremely rare and her own doctor kept assuring her that vaccines were safe. So she says she forced herself to ignore how both of her older daughters’ health seemed to be deteriorating after each doctor’s visit that included immunizations. But when genetic testing revealed that her daughters have methylation impairment (two are homozygous for MTHFR mutations, a genetic condition that makes it more difficult for the body to rid itself of toxins), the pieces started falling into place for Benton and her husband.
She says her two older daughters who are fully vaccinated have ongoing health problems, including learning challenges, gastrointestinal issues, and allergies, which were caused by vaccines. She and her husband, an engineer, stopped vaccinating their youngest daughter when she was four months old. She has not had any vaccines since. Benton says that, unlike her sisters, the three-year-old has never needed an antibiotic and rarely gets sick.
Lonna Larsh, M.D., a Santa Cruz family physician who has been practicing medicine for more than 20 years, says Benton’s experience with a doctor who refused to acknowledge that her children were reacting badly to vaccines does not surprise her.
“For the first 15 years of my professional career, I just parroted what I was told,” Larsh explains. “Nobody talked about side effects or potential problems with vaccines, not at all.”
It was only after Larsh started doing her own detailed research that she realized some children were having bad reactions to vaccines and that doctors had no way of identifying them in advance.
“I consider myself to be generally pro-vaccine, but I also recognize that there are vaccine reactions and not everyone should get all vaccines, particularly not on the CDC schedule,” Larsh tells me. “There needs to be more flexibility in how we give vaccines.”
Scared to speak up
Doctors in California say there is a culture of silence around the rising numbers of vaccine-injured children they are seeing in their practices. Though these doctors have concerns that giving so many vaccines at the same time may not be safe for some children, that some vaccines may not be necessary, and that we may be administering too many vaccines too soon, they feel they cannot speak openly about their concerns. They are afraid of being branded by their colleagues as “anti-vaccine,” and they are worried they will lose their licenses.
“People are afraid to talk about it; no one is willing to raise the questions,” Larsh admits. “That’s not science, that’s not in the spirit of inquiry, that’s the Dark Ages.” She pauses for a moment to collect her thoughts. “I want to know the truth. And here I am terrified that I’m going to lose my license because I want to know the truth.”
“It’s gotten much more heated and more extreme in recent years. It’s never been like this,” agrees Tina Kimmel. “It’s gotten to the point where people are afraid to say the word ‘vaccine’ in any context other than saying, ‘Here’s my arm, here’s my child’s leg, charge us all you want, stick us all you want.’”
Kimmel, who was directly involved in implementing the current California vaccine schedule, says she is troubled by the direction the immunization program in California is taking and dismayed that bringing up legitimate questions about vaccine timing and vaccine safety has become so contentious.
“Each one of these vaccines has side effects with them,” points out a Southern California pediatrician who agreed to speak only on the condition of anonymity, for fear of possible reprisal from the medical community. “One of them is autism. Tens of thousands of people now say that their children are vaccine-injured,” this doctor tells me. “Why is their voice all mummed? In what other industry do you see so many people being discounted and labeled as brainwashed?”
“I do not know why there is so much emotion and so little rationality on the vaccine issue,” a Southern California allergist who also asked to remain anonymous, admits via e-mail. “Yes, doctors are afraid. I had a family with severe anaphylaxis tell me they had called 40 doctors, and no one would see them or write a letter [an exemption]. Mess with the drug industry and lose your license.”
A public apology
But Rachael Ross, M.D./Ph.D., who comes from an accomplished medical family (her 86-year-old father is still practicing medicine, and her brother is also a doctor), is not afraid to speak publicly about her concerns about vaccine safety. In July 2016 Ross, who practices medicine at a family-run clinic in Gary, Indiana, and was cohost on the Emmy-award winning television show The Doctors, publicly apologized to her patients for blindly promoting vaccines.
“As a mom of a new tiny precious being and a doctor of many,” she wrote in a post on her blog, “I am left with so many questions: Should vaccines be delayed? Are any vaccines safe? If so, which ones? Are there more vaccine-injured victims that we even know about? Should genetic testing be conducted on all children before we assume that they can tolerate all of those vaccines?”
During an interview featured in the documentary film Vaxxed (2016), Ross announced she would delay vaccinating her infant until she gets her questions answered.
“People keep asking me if I’m scared to speak about this,” Ross writes at the end of her post. “My realest fear is that we will continue to assume that these moms are making this stuff up.”
No liability for vaccine manufacturers
The same 1986 Act of Congress that established a vaccine court also excused vaccine manufacturers from being held liable for injuries caused by vaccines, shifting that liability instead to the government. This was during a time when the whole cell pertussis vaccine (DPT) was in widespread use. The vaccine, which contained both a mercury-based preservative (thimerosal) and an aluminum adjuvant, had been shown to cause brain damage in some children.
As Emmy-award winning television journalist Lea Thompson explained after conducting a yearlong investigation into the safety of the DPT vaccine, “Since 1933 studies have shown that the whooping cough, or pertussis, vaccine causes brain damage. The controversy really isn’t over the fact that it happens, but how often it happens” (“Vaccine Roulette,” WRC-TV, April, 1982).
The government wanted both to help the families whose children had been inadvertently harmed by vaccines and keep the US well stocked with vaccines to protect against infectious diseases. But pharmaceutical companies threatened to leave the US market entirely if they were going to be held fiscally responsible for vaccine injuries. In 1996 the US replaced the problematic DPT vaccine with a less reactive acellular vaccine. Japan had replaced the whole-cell pertussis vaccine with an acellular vaccine 15 years earlier.
Several of the doctors I spoke to believe that shielding vaccine manufacturers from liability takes away the incentive to insure that vaccines are safe. They point out that since the 1986 National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act went into effect, more vaccines have been piled onto the schedule.
Babies are now being exposed to vaccines while still in the womb: the flu shot—often given twice if a woman’s pregnancy spans two flu seasons—and the pertussis vaccine are both recommended for pregnant women. They are also given a vaccine against hepatitis B, a sexually transmitted disease, within hours of birth, regardless of risk. If you include vaccines during pregnancy, a child born in 2016 is getting nearly five times as many vaccines as a child born in 1983.
“Big Pharma cannot be sued for any problem related to vaccines,” Rowen, the doctor in Santa Rosa, points out. “So they have everything to gain and nothing to lose by pushing a vaccine agenda for everyone. I believe the whole underlying incentive is money.”
No shots, no school for California’s children
On June 30, 2015, Governor Jerry Brown signed SB-277 into law. This law, implemented in July 2016, requires every child in California be immunized on the state schedule or face dismissal from public school, private school, and daycare. Only two other states—Mississippi and West Virginia—allow no philosophical or religious vaccine exemptions. Under these state laws, children who are missing even one vaccine are permanently barred from school.
During the often uncomfortable and sometimes heated public testimony in the California Senate before the bill was passed, State Senator Richard Pan, SB-277’s cosponsor, publicly asserted that: “…the Medical Board, to my knowledge, has never investigated or removed the license of a physician for granting a medical exemption for immunization that I am aware of” (June 9, 2015).
Several other times during that testimony, Pan insisted that doctors would not be under scrutiny for using their professional judgment to grant medical exemptions to children who needed them, reassurances that were reiterated in private meetings with doctors as well.
But the Ventura County doctor I spoke to off the record said he has not written a single exemption and does not plan to ever write one, no matter how medically indicated or important to the child’s health. Instead, he refers families seeking exemptions to a different, older doctor. I’m a coward, he said. I’m afraid of losing my license.
“We practice medicine because we love it,” yet another Southern California pediatrician speaking on the condition of anonymity, said to me. “I don’t want them to come after my license and take away the thing I love the most.”
But is it really in the interests of public health or of any individual child’s well-being to legislate medical compliance, ignore the risks of a medical intervention, and muzzle doctors? Dr. Cammy Benton does not think so.
“Until we have an open, honest discussion without fear of punishment, we’re never going to be able to move forward and have a safer schedule,” Benton, who opposes any mandatory vaccine laws, insists. “We’re being forced to comply with everything and not question anything. I think it’s my responsibility to speak up. I have to, for the sake of my own children.”
Which brings us back to the allegations against Robert Sears. He did not write a medical exemption for J.G. because he has an “anti-vaccination” agenda. Anyone who has taken the time to read Sears’s The Vaccine Book (Little, Brown, and Co., 2011), interview him in person, or attend one of his lectures knows that Sears gives vaccines in his office every day, and that he offers balanced scientific information, both about the risks and benefits of vaccines and about vaccine-preventable diseases.
The Medical Board is accusing Sears of being grossly negligent, “leaving both patient J.G., the patient’s mother, and his future contacts at risk for preventable and communicable diseases.” But this is a theoretical risk that is contrary to the facts in the case: The child, the mother, and the general public have not contracted any preventable disease. Doctors practicing evidence-based medicine all agree that, despite the current “standard of care,” the real negligence is continuing to vaccinate a baby who has suffered a severe reaction.
Jennifer Margulis, Ph.D., is an award-winning science journalist and investigative reporter whose work has been published in the New York Times and the Washington Post, and featured on the cover of Smithsonian magazine. A Fulbright grantee, she has a bachelor’s degree from Cornell University, a master’s degree from the University of California at Berkeley, and a doctorate from Emory University. She is the author of Your Baby, Your Way: Taking Charge of Your Pregnancy, Childbirth, and Parenting Decisions for a Happier, Healthier Family (Scribner, 2015) and coauthor, with pediatrician and addiction specialist Dr. Paul Thomas, M.D., of The Vaccine-Friendly Plan: Dr. Paul’s Safe and Effective Approach to Immunity and Health—from Pregnancy Through Your Child’s Teen Years (Ballantine, 2016). Learn more at www.JenniferMargulis.net. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.