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The vaccine debate rages on, and Deborah Kotz’s feature in the February issue provided a very well done summary of many of the current issues. She included many quotes from various medical experts from around the country about parents’ growing fears over vaccines side effects and where we should go with research. Here are some of the highlights that I found interesting:
Pediatrician Catherine DeAngelis, editor in chief of the Journal of the American Medical Association (now that’s a credential!), was quoted as saying, “I certainly think it’s wrong to give [Gardasil] to young teenage girls. What are the risks? We won’t know until it’s given to millions of women.” It’s interesting that the chief editor of JAMA would make such a statement, but it does echo what many parents across the country are saying about Gardasil.
“According to the CDC, if every American child followed the schedule, 33,000 lives would be saved every year.” I find this very hard to believe. Vaccine-preventable diseases only kill about 500 children each year (a rough estimate, but it’s still very tragic). Where does the CDC get such a high number? I think they are probably including all the elderly people that die of the flu, Hepatitis B, and cervical cancer. That may be true, but this number gives the false impression that 33,000 children are dying each year of what should be vaccine-preventable diseases. That’s just not true.
Deborah discusses how the AAP and CDC are approaching the issue of vaccine safety. In my opinion, there is a significant disparity between the two institutions in how they are handling the public’s worries over vaccines. The AAP’s answer: form an “immunization alliance” to create a publicity campaign (not research!) to push for all kids to get all recommended vaccines on time, lead by vaccine patent-holder Dr. Paul Offit. But the CDC, while also encouraging the same policy, is willing to admit that more research needs to be done. Deborah quotes Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (which is a key partner in new research initiatives on vaccines) as saying “If we can show that individuals of a certain genetic profile have a greater propensity for developing adverse events, we may want to screen everyone prior to vaccination.” It seems to me that the AAP just wants to keep doing business as usual, and the CDC wants to do more research (while continuing to do business as usual for now).
In regards to the Hannah Poling case (whose autism was ruled by the U.S. Vaccine Court to be triggered by vaccines because she had a mitochondrial disorder), Deborah quotes neurologist Dr. Bruce Cohen (a mitochondrial disease expert at the Cleveland Clinic) as saying, “Mitochondrial disease often occurs in the later stages of a viral illness, and it’s proper reasoning to think that vaccines could do what viruses do” in terms of immune reactions.
John Iskander, the CDC’s associate director for immunization safety, is quoted as saying, “Vaccines are extraordinarily safe medical products.” He also comments on the issue of unknown safety risks of two new vaccines, Menactra and Gardasil, which only need to be tested on several thousand people in order to receive FDA approval: “These trials simply aren’t big enough to detect rare events that only come to light after 1 million or more doses are distributed.”
Dr. Bernadine Healy, former director of the National Institutes of Health, adds her two cents (or rather, her couple of bucks) to the article with a discussion of where the NIH is headed with its vaccine safety research efforts to learn “how to use them more safely and effectively.” They plan to study how vaccines can affect the immune in ways we don’t yet know, learn how to identify susceptible groups who may respond poorly to vaccines, to study various vaccine schedules, and to learn more about the infant immune system.
Deborah reminds us that “the original vaccine against rotavirus . . . was tested on fewer than 1300 American infants before it was approved in 1998; a year later, after being given to 1.5 million babies, Rotashield was pulled from the market because 13 reported cases of severe intestinal blockages were attributed to the vaccine. The meningitis vaccine Menactra was studied in just over 7500 people before it was approved in 2005 . . . It wasn’t until . . . after 15 million doses had been administered that the CDC announced a “small increased risk” of Guillain-Barre [a paralyzing disease] that needs to be studied further.”
Deborah points out the drawbacks of the VAERS system and discusses the CDC’s Vaccine Safety Datalink, a better monitoring system for studying adverse reactions. Dr. Richard Platt from Harvard is expected to release the results of this system’s monitoring of Menactra side effects (namely Guillain-Barre) later this year.
Deborah reminds us that avoiding immunizations altogether isn’t a good solution for families because certain serious diseases could rise sharply and cause more fatalities if vaccination rates drop too sharply. “Parents who choose not to vaccinate had better hope that other parents aren’t following their lead. Certain approaches (referring to my alternative vaccine schedule), though, can help minimize risks without leaving children unprotected.
She ends the article with a layout of my alternative vaccine schedule. This is the first national publication to do so in a neutral/positive light (Yay!). You can find an online version of this part of her article here. If you click on the vaccine chart on the left side, you’ll see my alternative schedule laid out next to the AAP/CDC schedule.
This is the first vaccine article that I’ve read in a mainstream news magazine or newspaper that didn’t end with, “So vaccines are perfectly safe, parents have nothing to worry about, and everyone needs to vaccinate their babies according to the standard vaccine schedule.” But it didn’t end with “vaccines are dangerous and everyone needs to beware” either. The article summarized what seems to be a shift within the CDC, NIH and the government toward more research into making sure what we are doing with vaccines is safe, how we can improve upon it, how we can screen out that very small number of infants who may not react well, and how we can gain a better understanding of how vaccines affect the immune and nervous system.
The party line used to be “vaccines are perfectly safe, we know everything we need to know about their side effects and how they affect the immune and nervous system, and that’s that.” I can’t tell you how many AAP medical meetings I’ve been to where doctors just sit around and laugh at anyone who even thinks about saying anything negative about vaccines. They literally laugh. I think that arrogant mindset is changing. How can anyone pretend that we know everything? We need more research. I’m not saying we should stop vaccinating, neither is Deborah Kotz in this article, and neither are any of the doctors whom she quoted. But it seems that the call for more research and understanding has been heard. I look forward to seeing it all (in ten years or so, unfortunately).
What will happen to the vaccine industry if research finds that a small, but significant, percentage of children truly are susceptible to suffering some harmful neurologic or immunologic effects? I predict that this will NOT lead to a change in our overall vaccine policy. The fear over what would happen with diseases is too powerful of a concern in the medical community. I think that in most doctors’ minds, disease prevention takes precedence over the occasional developmental challenges that vaccines may trigger in a small subset of our population. I’m not saying that’s right, I’m just saying that’s the way I think the medical community would view this issue if research proves there’s a concern for a small percentage of children. Of course, the financial and emotional burdens of autism on each individual family and our nation as a whole is huge, and it’s climbing. What is going to happen with these 1 in 150 kids in 20 years?
What I think will happen as more research comes out is that we will learn how to screen newborns to determine who is susceptible, then we will learn how to vaccinate them differently in a way that doesn’t cause harm to that small subset. Or we may not vaccinate them at all. But I don’t think that this research is going to lead to a sudden revelation that vaccines are dangerous to all children and that we should stop. In order for something like that to overcome the momentum that vaccine policy has, the research would have to be very clear that vaccines can harm many or most children.