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Photograph by Skye Dunlap

Health Matters: Some parents are questioning the necessity of childhood vaccinations. Pictured are Sarah Gaffney and daughter Isabella Rose, 4 1/2 months.

A Shot in the Dark

A growing number of parents are choosing not to inoculate their children

By Jessica Lyons

FOUR-YEAR-OLD Walker Doven chases big brother Gage, 5, through the front room of their Santa Cruz home, bare feet padding on the hardwood floors, and blond bowl cuts bobbing as they run.

Walker's baby feet are splattered with blue, yellow, green and pink paint and wall spackle--a casualty sustained while building and tiling a wooden fort in the backyard. Mom and Dad, Caroline Sammet and Peter Doven, are finishing a similar, albeit not as colorful, project on the kitchen walls.

Gage and Walker giggle and stick their tongues out for the camera. Looking at two sets of bright blue eyes, ski-jump noses and dimples, I see happy, healthy, energetic boys. But these are the faces school nurses and state health officials warn young parents about, linking them with words like "infectious disease," "epidemics" and "outbreaks." The government says Gage and Walker should be stuck by 22 needles by the time they are 6 years old, to protect against such diseases as measles, mumps, polio, pertussis (whooping cough), diphtheria and tetanus (lockjaw), among others. Of these vaccines mandated by national policy, Gage and Walker have been inoculated for tetanus.

Most pediatrics say the tetanus vaccine (the T in DTP, diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis) should be administered in four doses, at 2 months, 4 months, 6 months and between 15 and 18 months. Gage and Walker got their first tetanus shot at age 3.

Caroline and her husband are among the growing number of parents questioning the necessity and safety of routine childhood vaccines. With smallpox a scourge of the past and other diseases grown extremely rare, some parents are challenging the national vaccine policy. Charging that inoculations have brought on disorders including autism, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis and diabetes, these parents say the risk of disease and death from mandatory vaccinations outweighs the risk of contracting the illness that the vaccine is intended to protect against. They say better nutrition, exercise and stress management offer a safer and less intrusive approach to health.

According to most parents like Peter and Caroline, however, who have decided not to vaccinate their children, the issue isn't black and white. They don't suggest wiping out all vaccines for every child, but they also don't want to see the one-size-fits-all vaccination treatment embraced by the medical profession.

"I don't feel completely gung-ho on not vaccinating them, but for us, after doing our research, this felt the best as far as safety," 40-year-old Caroline says. "We wanted to learn as much as we could and take it vaccine by vaccine. Both boys had the tetanus shot when they were 3, and in looking at who the boys were--they were very active kids, crawling and walking early on, so [tetanus] seemed like one disease they might get. With our daughter, we're still at the point where we may consider other ones. Waiting was the key for us."

Forty-nine-year-old Kitty Mrache shared similar concerns about vaccinating her four children. She says she eventually decided to vaccinate for tetanus, but not until the kids were 2.

"Vaccinations are given to people when they are way too young," she says. "Their own immune system hasn't had a chance to develop and we're putting a toxic substance into their body, not just the dead or live bacteria, but the other chemicals like formaldehyde and mercury. I feel it's really doing a lifelong disservice to a child by putting that strain on their immune system."

Culture Shot

INDEED, A KEY ARGUMENT against inoculations is that the vaccines directly attack a child's immature immune system, crippling it and preventing the body from fighting against future attacks. Furthermore, there is always the possibility that vaccines such as those for polio, measles and mumps, which contain live but weakened viruses, could trigger the disease they are trying to prevent. An average of eight children a year are infected with polio by the Sabin oral vaccine, which contains a live but weakened form of the virus, and has been used routinely in the U.S. since the 1960s. Just last month, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a statement advocating replacing the oral polio vaccine with the old-fashioned shots. The injected vaccine, which is just as effective as the oral one, uses an inactive form of the virus.

In July, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the U.S. Public Health Service urged vaccine makers to remove the mercury preservative, called thimerosal, added to many vaccines to kill bacteria. The accumulated mercury from multiple vaccinations has been linked to neurological damage.

Shortly after that--and after 23 infants suffered collapsed bowels after receiving the vaccine--the Center for Disease Control (CDC) stopped all inoculations with RotaShield, a new vaccine designed to protect infants from fatal rotavirus infections, which cause severe diarrhea and dehydration.

Other routine vaccines, which could potentially cause chronic diseases, are still widely available, however. DTP, which has been blamed for cases of brain damage, is still available although the CDC recommends using a safer variety, DTaP. And MMR, intended to protect against measles, mumps and rubella, has been linked to autism.

"Immunity should be the goal we are working toward," says local chiropractor Makani Lew, who maintains a "Question Vaccinations" website with links to other immune-system and anti-vaccination sites, as well as a list of books questioning the safety of vaccines.

"I believe people should be educated," Lew says. "I want people to question vaccines. I want people to know they have a choice. I'm definitely not anti-vaccines, but on the other hand, I've chosen not to vaccinate my son. I'm pro-education, pro-strengthening the immune system."

Parents should have the choice whether or not to vaccinate their children, Lew says. However, with the decision comes added responsibilities. Parents who choose not to vaccinate are responsible for feeding their kids a healthy diet, and educating themselves about their child's health and alternative ways to bolster the immune system, she says.

"Choosing not to vaccinate should not be a choice made out of ignorance," Lew says. "It has to be because you are healthy. If you are going to feed your kid artificial sugars and colors--if you are going to feed your kid Chee-tos--then go ahead and vaccinate them."

Pins and Needles

WHILE ANTI-VACCINE advocates say the near-extinction and steep decline of potentially fatal childhood diseases renders vaccines dispensable, state health officials say that serious outbreaks are only a "plane ride away." The CDC estimates that only 80 percent of American 2-year-olds have been given all of the recommended inoculations. That number is slightly lower for California, at only 76 percent. And in 1998, 9,432 unvaccinated kids died from preventable disease, including measles, mumps and whooping cough.

"Polio, although it is no longer epidemic in the U.S., is epidemic in many parts of the world and only a plane ride away," says Curtis Allen, a spokesperson for the CDC's National Immunization Program. "Hence, the disease could return on the next flight. We're not seeing the diseases we saw 20, 30 and 40 years ago, and that's primarily due to immunization."

Indeed, anti-vaccination evidence remains largely anecdotal. The Vaccine Adverse Events Reporting System receives 11,000 reports of vaccine reactions each year, although the FDA admits this number only represents about 10 percent of actual vaccine reactions.

"Our son had his second DTP shot and oral [vaccine] at four months of age on Sept. 22, 1989," reads an excerpt from "Vaccines: Are They Really Safe and Effective?" by Neil Z. Miller. "He had reacted to his first DPT immunization two months earlier with prolonged high-pitched screaming and projectile vomiting. ... After his second shot he immediately started the high-pitched screaming again. He could no longer hold his head up and could not keep his food down. He couldn't sleep or stay awake, he had absence seizures, dozens to hundreds a day. He deteriorated and died April 14, 1990."

A virtual visit to the National Vaccine Information Center, a Virginia-based clearinghouse of vaccine data, shows the smiling face of a beautiful blond 7-year-old boy named Terry. A mouse click onto the thumbnail image, however, reveals the bigger picture: Terry's body is propped up by pillows, he's wearing diapers and is hooked up to a respirator.

"Terry is seven years old and stays alive with the help of a respirator and 24-hour nursing care," reads the surrounding text. "He can move his eyes and mouth, but he can't move his ears. Terry was left paralyzed by vaccine strain polio after swallowing live oral polio vaccine at nine weeks of age."

Terry's page continues to describe the boy's downward spiral after being vaccinated at 9 weeks old. Doctors denied the vaccine had anything to do with Terry's condition. Today, Terry wears a permanent catheter because of kidney problems. He is fed through a tube in his nose, and is consistently in and out of hospitals. In 1996, the U.S. Court of Claims in Washington, D.C., ruled that Terry's paralysis was caused by the live polio vaccine.

Blood Money

OPPONENTS OF THE national vaccine policy say the influx of anecdotal evidence is further proof that the government doesn't supply sufficient funds to research death and disease brought on by vaccines. Out of the CDC's vaccine budget of nearly $1 billion, less than one-half of one percent of the money is spent on vaccine research. The other 99.5 percent is spent on vaccine purchase and promotion.

On the other hand, since its inception in 1986, the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program has awarded more than $916 million to victims of mandatory vaccinations and their parents.

"Vaccines carry an inherent risk of injury for any child," says Barbara Loe Fisher, who co-founded the National Vaccine Information Center after her 2-1/2-year-old son had a convulsion and brain inflammation following a DTP shot and developed learning disabilities. "We can't take the approach that we can sacrifice individuals for what the state has said is the greater good of society. When a child dies or is injured by a disease, it's not the doctor, it's not the state health official, it's the parent who has to take care of the child."

Although most doctors support universal vaccination, and the needed legislation to make it mandatory, every state in the U.S. offers at least a medical exemption from vaccines. However, a medical exemption, which is obtained from a doctor, usually only applies to one vaccine and is generally given following a previous adverse effect. Forty-eight states, excluding Mississippi and West Virginia, offer religious exemptions, and 22 states, including California, allow philosophical exemptions, waiving vaccinations because of a parent's personal beliefs.

Even in states where religious and philosophical exemptions are legal, it's not uncommon to lose a family physician over the choice not to inoculate, parents say. It happened to Elizabeth and Seth Summers, who live in New York, where philosophical exemptions are illegal. Both asked that their real names not be used.

Elizabeth, 36, said she and her husband planned to vaccinate their 2-year-old daughter, Molly, up until about three weeks before her birth. The couple heard a radio show discussing potential vaccine dangers and decided to do some homework on the subject.

"It was a really scary thought not to vaccinate her," Elizabeth says. "But the more research we did, the more uncomfortable we became with making the decision to vaccinate blindly. It was a very hard decision to make--I cried over this. I was so torn, but the information given to us was so overwhelming for us not to vaccinate her, when it came down to making the decision it actually wasn't difficult--it was the only decision we could have made."

After Molly was born, and after months of independent research and talking to doctors, all of whom encouraged Elizabeth and Seth to vaccinate, the couple decided not to give Molly any childhood shots. One pediatrician said he could no longer treat Molly.

"I think we were smart enough to know that just because he's a doctor and he's a nice person, that doesn't mean he knows what's best for our child," Elizabeth says. "We felt like we had to listen to ourselves as parents."

Molly will attend nursery school in the fall, where inoculations are mandatory upon attendance, and Elizabeth says she will have to forge a vaccination card for her daughter. If the fake document is discovered, Molly will have to go back to day care until she is old enough for public kindergarten. Even when Molly is in kindergarten, Elizabeth and Seth will have to prove religious exemption. Although the couple are not practicing Jews, they hired a lawyer to write a document claiming religious exemption. They can live with that lie, Elizabeth says. They couldn't live with the knowledge that they had jeopardized Molly's health.

"We breast-feed our babies, we feed them homemade organic food, we oppose the overuse of antibiotics, but we vaccinate them without doing any research and without asking any questions," Elizabeth says. "I don't have a problem with parents who choose to vaccinate because I know what a difficult choice it was to make, but I do have a problem with parents not educating themselves on a decision of this magnitude."

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From the January 20-26, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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