Shoot 'Em Up: Childhood Immunization
Most parents don't think twice about immunizing their children. Yet one-third of the four million babies born in this country every year remain unvaccinated by age two. A couple of years ago, a New York couple was even accused of child neglect because they refused a measles shot for their three-year-old. Is the failure to have one's children vaccinated the result of ignorance, poverty, or abuse, as the government claims? Perhaps, in some cases. But in the wake of increasing research into the dangers of immunizations, many concerned parents are consciously choosing to forgo or modify their child's immunization program.These sentiments run smack in the face of President Clinton's Childhood Immunization Initiative -- a mission to vaccinate 90 percent of all children against six ailments by 1996. Besides offering free shots to those who qualify, many states employ tracking systems to follow both immunized and unimmunized children.There was a time when childhood illnesses were deadly. The introduction of vaccinations (the first, in 1902, was against smallpox) brought a sigh of relief to many parents' lips. Health caregivers watched as the incidence of polio and other ailments declined, and once- frequent diseases became rare.Vaccines, intended to protect the individual and community against diphtheria, pertussis (whooping cough), tetanus (lockjaw), polio, measles, mumps, rubella (German measles), Haemophilus influenzae type b, and hepatitis B, are hailed by many as one of the most efficacious and safest therapies available. Vaccines defend children against contagious bugs, when parents cannot, wrote Mothering magazine in 1987. Rashes, fever, or sore arms, and the occasional severe reaction caused by shots, are viewed as a small price to pay for promised immunity.Most states require that children be given all vaccines in order to attend school and, frequently, day care. The Supreme Court has ruled that compulsory vaccinations are constitutional. All states offer exemptions to this requirement based on medical reasons (requiring a doctor's signature), religious beliefs, or personal/philosophical judgment. However, these exemptions are not guaranteed. During the last four years, at least three states have removed their philosophical exemptions. A resolution opposing religious exemptions was passed by the American Medical Association in 1995 since they violate standard medical practice. And immunizations are voluntary in many countries, including Switzerland, the Netherlands, England, Ireland, Germany, Austria, and Spain.DON'T VACCINATE MY CHILD!"The greatest threat of childhood diseases lies in the dangerous and ineffectual efforts made to prevent them through mass immunization -- the late Robert Mendelsohn, MD, in his book How to Raise a Healthy Child...in Spite of Your Doctor" While pushing for higher immunization rates, the U.S. government has set up the Vaccine Injury Compensation Program, funded by a federal tax applied to each vaccine. As of February 1995, the VICP had paid over half a billion dollars for vaccine- related injuries and deaths. The federal government admits that fewer than ten percent of doctors even report vaccine problems, according to testimony offered in September by Kristine M. Severyn, director of Ohio Parents for Vaccine Safety, before a committee of the Michigan House of Representatives. So without adequate data, do we really know if the benefits of immunization outweigh the risks?Opponents feel there are too many unanswered questions about vaccines to warrant blanket use. Even the word "immunization" is frowned upon, as it implies support of the immune system when in fact the opposite may be true, according to researchers H.E. Buttram and J.C. Hoffman. Some are concerned that vaccines may ignite AIDS infections and cause allergies, sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), and immune-related conditions such as multiple sclerosis later in life. Of the 145 children who died of SIDS or crib death in Los Angeles County from 1979 to 1980, more than one-third had received a DPT (diphtheria-tentanus toxoid-pertussis) shot less than a month earlier -- significantly more than would be expected by random chance, as the reporting investigators admitted in a 1983 article in Pediatric Infectious Diseases.Critics feel immunity gained from an inoculation is a far cry from the natural immunity acquired from exposure to or development of the disease itself. Even vaccine advocates, such as the authors of the Core Textbook of Pediatrics, admit shots are not 100 percent effective. Three years ago, Cincinnati experienced a pertussis epidemic among primarily immunized children. And 40 percent of measles cases reported in the U.S. in 1989 were blamed on vaccine failure, according to C. Marwick's 1990 report in JAMA, the journal of the American Medical Association.Most diseases vaccinated against are contracted through respiration. Vaccine injections bypass important natural defense systems in the body which are never activated. Moreover, the vaccination may be given too soon, or too much vaccine may be used, overpowering the immune system -- particularly the undeveloped defenses of an infant, according to Buttram and Hoffman, writing in "Vaccinations and Immune Malfunction," a chapter in A Textbook of Natural Medicine. Consider, too, the formaldehyde, thimerosal (mercury derivative), and other hazardous chemicals added to a vaccine brew, writes N.Z. Miller in Immunization Theory vs. Reality.Though immunizations for diphtheria, pertussis, tetanus, and polio began at two months of age, a young infant is usually protected by measles, polio, and tetanus antibodies from its mother for the first six months of life. Breast-fed children are protected by immunity factors contained in the mother's milk.The incidence and severity of measles, polio, diphtheria, and whooping cough began sliding dramatically before widespread vaccination programs or antibiotics were introduced, according to N.Z. Miller in Vaccines: Are They Really Safe and Effective? Better nutrition and hygiene, as well as the cyclical nature of disease, probably explain this decline. One need only look at Europe, where polio disappeared at the same time as in the United States -- but without aggressive immunizations -- to dismiss the notion that the illness was eradicated through mass inoculations, argued Mendelsohn.There are parents and practitioners who balk at being part of a "big experiment" that does not allow much room for personal choice. Society-wide vaccination is based on the notion of herd immunity, which assumes that if the entire population is vaccinated against a particular disease, then epidemics can be avoided. However, one cannot fail to take into account vaccines' mediocre track record and side effects. Moreover, the herd immunity is weakened by those whose health, or allergy to something in the shots, prevents vaccine treatment. And then there are the many people who opt to remain unvaccinated based on religious or personal reasons.GIVE ME CHOICE OR GIVE ME DEATH...For parents, whose children's health is at stake, it is very difficult to choose between a potentially serious disease and a possibly harmful treatment. Do you vaccinate just in case, or abstain until science knows more? Unfortunately, this choice is frequently taken out of parents' hands, and in our society there are no other forms of medical treatment which are mandated for everyone (at least all children) regardless of health and situation.Privacy is another issue. Confidentiality of vaccination information doesn't exist, and in several states, including California, immunization records are open to scrutiny by the health department and some others.Before deciding to have your children immunized -- or to avoid the shots -- consider several options.1.) Routine Immunization. If you choose to fully vaccinate your child, ask your doctor about the risks and possible side effects of immunizations. Educate yourself about situations in which inoculations should be avoided or delayed.2.) No Immunization. Some parents choose not to immunize their children at all. They try to guard their children's immune systems with healthy practices such as prolonged breast-feeding and, later, a nutritious diet.3.) Homeopathic Immunization. As a compromise, some parents choose to use homeopathic immunization instead of, or together with, conventional vaccinations. Those who decide to go this route should seek guidance from a professionally trained homeopath. Be aware that the efficacy of this form of vaccination has not been proven and is not a legal substitute for state-mandated requirements.4.) Selective Immunization. Others selectively pick vaccines for their children, or delay vaccinating their children until they are older.Heightened awareness may turn your once-clear decision to immunize your children into mud. Vaccination is a subject still bubbling with questions. Read what various experts have to say and formulate your own opinions. The final choice is up to you.