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Shot in the Dark

Physicians make the case for--and against--child immunization

By Ellen Bicheler

For four weeks, two-year-old Faith Tannenbaum didn't sleep through the night, vomited and coughed excessively and generally lead a miserable existence.

This all might have been avoided had her parents immunized her against pertussis, or whooping cough, one of four immunizations recommended by local school districts and public-health officials. But because of uncertainties regarding the side effects of such immunizations, the Tannenbaums chose not to immunize their daughter, and instead sought alternative means of treatment.

"It took four weeks to get a definitive diagnosis of whooping cough," says Faith's father, chiropractor David Tannenbaum. Dr. Bob Dozor of the Integrative Medical Clinic in Santa Rosa made the diagnosis, referring Faith to the clinic's naturopathic doctor, Moses Goldberg, for treatment. A combination of homeopathic and hydrotherapy treatments has "her sleeping through the night again."

Faith Tannenbaum is one of many unvaccinated children in Sonoma County. Michelle Davis, immunization coordinator for Sonoma County, reports that 78 percent of 35-month-old Sonoma County children have been immunized against diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis, measles, mumps and rubella. But nearly a quarter of the population has opted not to do so. Although public schools require the immunizations, parents who choose not to can exempt their child by signing a waiver.

"The vaccination decision is difficult," says Pam Koppel, executive director of the Integrative Medical Clinic Foundation. "Immunization proponents point to the tremendous success it has enjoyed in nearly eliminating or dramatically reducing a number of diseases ranging from smallpox to polio to measles. Opponents point to what they believe is increasing evidence that multiple immuni-zations leave a child's body compromised in many other ways."

That's why Koppel initiated a public debate at the clinic to showcase the pros and cons of vaccination last month. "There is a lot of pressure to immunize," she explains. "Many pediatricians won't accept an unvaccinated child into their practice."

Santa Rosa resident Melissa Jones can attest to that. "I'm on Medi-Cal," she says. "I don't have the option of going to an alternative physician if my baby gets sick. I have to immunize him if I want him in daycare."

Dr. Dozor supports vaccinations, saying that they "are highly effective at preventing the illnesses for which they are targeted. We should not forget that the natural diseases of children killed and crippled routinely before the era of vaccination." Still, he deviates from "rigid adherence to the official published vaccination schedule" and advises his patients "to look individually at all the benefit/risk factors for each vaccination."

Clinic director Koppel has followed Dozor's advice with her own daughter. She admittedly "felt torn" about what immunizations to give. After evaluation of all the immunizations, the only ones she's given her daughter are diphtheria and tetanus, reasoning that, "tetanus is hard to treat and the vaccine has the least amount of side effects."

Dr. Goldberg says that he "doesn't tell his patients to vaccinate or not vaccinate"; he simply gives them the information to make their own decisions. Personally, he's chosen not to vaccinate his six-year-old son.

"Vaccination is like a bad seed in the garden you're trying to till," he says. He cites possible autoimmune diseases as side effects, such as juvenile arthritis from the hepatitis B vaccine. He's concerned that "all the heavy metals--thimerosol [a mercury by-product], MSG and animal tissues--that go into the vaccines might create a basic imbalance in a small child and make them more susceptible to disease."

Dr. Leigh Hall, deputy health officer for Sonoma County, believes it's important to adhere to the prescribed vaccine timetable. "The basic issue is that immunizations are the primary defenses against infectious diseases," she says. "They work safely for the majority of people."

Redwood City homeopathist Dr. Randall Neustaedter disagrees. "Vaccines have known and unknown adverse affects," he asserts. "Before making a decision, consider whether you are willing to gamble with the unknown factors that may affect your child for the rest of his or her life. Your child deserves the strongest immune system possible for a life fraught with immune-weakening influences."

Some research has shown a disturbing link between vaccination and autism. The Institute of Medicine recently discredited that link, but organizations like the nonprofit group SafeMinds, a coalition dedicated to eradicating mercury from food, medicines and other consumer products, isn't so convinced.

"SafeMinds will continue to educate the public and our elected officials to the objective hard science that shows the link between thimerosol-containing vaccines and autism," says executive board president Lyn Redwood.

Peggy O'Mara, publisher and editor of Mothering magazine, cautions parents about the influenza vaccine that is now recommended. "If you choose to give this vaccine, make sure you get the thimerosol-free version," she warns. "With so many special interests, it's particularly important that parents trust their own instincts."

The Tannenbaum family is following suit. Even after enduring their daughter's whooping cough, Tannenbaum says, "I wouldn't change my mind. The bottom line has to do with fear. What are you afraid of the most?"

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From the June 16-22, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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