Printed in Natural Glow Magazine September/October 2002
You've picked out a name, furniture, and about a million toys, but if you think you're done preparing for your new baby, think again - here comes another important choice you've probably never even thought about: If and how you should vaccinate your infant.
If you never realized that inoculations were something that required a decision, you're not alone. The vast majority of people -about 99% -follow "doctor's orders" and immunize their children without even asking any questions. Many of them agree with the government's view that the benefits of immunizations out-weigh the risks. But, do they really know what the dangers are?
"It's amazing to me that so many people haven't heard about the risks," says Barbara Loe Fisher, co-founder and president of the National Vaccine Information Center, a non-profit educational organization. (Fisher's son suffered brain damage following a convulsion after a vaccine.) "A lot of people just don't get it. They know that drugs and surgery have risks, but they don't know that vaccines do."
Fisher is among a growing minority of people who don't agree with physician guidelines and choose not to immunize their children, or who do it differently than the government recommends. They contend that inoculations, and the way they are administered, have health risks that are often not publicized. They assert that every vaccine, like every drug, carries the chance of injury or even death.
Critics also say that vaccines -a multi billion dollar a year industry -have helped fuel the increase in cases of autism, ADD, and other chronic diseases. Even the government and manufactures have acknowledge that there may be some credence to these claims. Over a billion dollars has been awarded to parents of kids injured by vaccines under the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act of 1986, according to Fisher.
Today, activists are stepping up their efforts to get the word out. They believe that parents need to educate themselves, and realize that while the government does mandate inoculations, there are exemptions available. Ultimately, it's your decision as to what kind of shots, and how many, are given to your child.Real Life Consequences
Millions of vaccines are given annually in this country, most with no problems. But, sometimes a child does get a bad reaction from an immunization which can range from a rash and soreness, to permanent disabilities, experts say.
"My son is autistic. He was diagnosed after his MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine," says Yvonne Hackl, a California-based mom who's first child's injury by a vaccine caused her to alter the way she immunized her second baby, "A week after he got the shot, he had a minor seizure and got a blank expression on his face."
Activists believe that certain children have a genetic predisposition to injury and should probably avoid immunizations. "Vaccines manipulate the immune system, so with certain genetic factors are at a higher susceptibility for reactions," says Fisher. "If people have a family history of auto-immune or neurological problems, they need to be particularly careful."
While Hackl does believe that a "genetic frailty" contributed to her son's reaction, she did decide to vaccinate her daughter. "I'm not raising them in a plastic bubble," she says. "The world is so open now, it's possible to expose your kids to diseases that western medicine had helped us conquer."
This time around, however, despite physicians' resistance, she is doing it her way -one shot at a time, rather than the now routine several shots per visit. "The doctors were pressuring me to do the vaccines the way they wanted to do them, but I'm going to do it the way I feel comfortable," she says. "Someone who is not informed will just believe what the doctors say, and while the doctors mean well, you should make your own decisions."Curious Concoctions
Vaccines are preparations that contain a weakened or killed bacteria or virus, according to Lauren Feder, M.D. a Beverly Hills, CA- based physician. "After it is injected, the immune system wages a protective response and the person develops antibodies,," she says. But these so-called disease preventing shots also contain harmful chemicals which "are being injected directly into the bloodstream and can have side effects." Ingredients routinely found in vaccines, according to Dr. Feder, include:
- Aluminum - used as a preservative and has been implicated in Alzheimer's disease, dementia, and seizures:
- Formaldehyde - included as a preservative and is known to cause cancer:
- Monkey tissue - included in the polio vaccine and linked to simian virus 20 and childhood tumors;
- Mercury - used as a preservative and is also known as thimerosol, and rithialate.
While mercury has been used in vaccines since the 1930s, there is mounting evidence that it's very dangerous. In fact, the government has asked manufactures to stop using it, but old stocks of vaccines containing the toxin are still commonly administered today, according to Dr. Feder, who noted that injected mercury is known to be harmful to the neurological system and the kidneys and level can accumulate with every additional shot. The vaccines that may still contain mercury include hepatitis B and influenza, she adds.
Dr. Feder suggests that it's ironic that the FDA recommends that pregnant women steer clear of eating certain fish like mackerel, swordfish, and shark, because one serving could subject the developing baby to toxic levels of mercury, yet the CDC recommends pregnant women get flu shots, which include mercury. "Researchers have correlated exposure to mercury to nervous tics, speech delay, sleep disorders, ADD, and autism, " she adds.
In addition, there is some evidence that vaccines can cause cancer, although research has not proven this claim. "Federal and state governments are mandating that infants and children swallow and be injected with substances that have never been tested for their ability to cause cancer, mutations, or developmental malformations," says Dr. Feder. In the meantime, the drug companies are grossing billions of dollars on sales of these potentially carcinogenic products."
Times Have Changed
In the 1960s and 70s, when many of us were born, the number of vaccines we got was far less than those given today. Children back then routinely got "23 doses of 7 vaccinations, but today we give 36 doses of 11," says Fisher.
"Success has lead to excess with vaccines, Now there's a let's-vaccinate-for-everything attitude," says Dr.Feder. "When people get sick, it stimulates the immune system and that's not a bad thing. By not letting children get sick, what are we really doing to their immune systems?"
Babies are also being vaccinated earlier than in past generations. Until 1991, kids weren't administered any shots until they were two months old. But since 1991, hospitals have been giving babies the hepatitis B vaccine at birth, before discharge, says Dr. Feder. At birth, why on earth would an infant need to be protected from this disease so early in life? One reason is that if the mother carries the illness, then she can transmit it to the baby during delivery. But there is an alternative to giving your child a hepatitis immunization just a few days after arriving into this world.
"Before I had my second baby, I had myself tested for hepatitis B, and I was negative," says Hackl. "I decided if I don't have it, how can she get it, so I did not give it to her after birth. Instead, I gave it to her at three years old, when she was starting school."
If you choose to deliver in a hospital, then you much decide long before going into labor if you want to forgo immunization. "You need to make decisions before the baby is born because you need time to get tested and get results," says Hackl. who notes that you should also be prepared to face some resistance from the hospital staff because they will sometimes try and sway your decision.
Fisher has even heard of cases where a hospital has tried to refuse to allow parents to leave without having the vaccine administered, which she says is illegal. "You've got to know your rights," Fisher adds, noting that before you go into labor you will have to sign a hospital consent form. "Make sure you put an asterisk with the words no vaccines to be given without permission. And it's also a good idea to have the father or someone else stay with baby at all times, and make sure they don't do it."
In addition to immunizing earlier, nowadays, multiple shots are routinely given on the same day, which makes the risks of injury even higher. "The one-size-fits-all national vaccine policy that we have today allows a baby to be injected with nine or more vaccines in one day," says Fisher.
And, believe it or not, inoculations are also commonly given to sick children, experts say. Parents who don't want to bother coming back for another visit are easily convinced by doctors to "go ahead and get it done now while you're here." Dr, Feder stresses that if there is any sign of illness, don't proceed, or you might be increasing the chances of a bad reaction. "We're injecting a strong substance into the body, and you want to make sure the body is 100% well to minimize any negative effects," she says. "If your child is a little off balance or fussy and you think an illness is coming in a day or two, it's not the time to vaccinate.
Common Vaccines and Possible Reactions
Pertussis- The pertussis, or whooping cough shot is taken as part of the combined DPT shot (diphtheria, pertussis, tetanus). It's composed of killed pertussis bacteria that contains toxins which are responsible for neurological complications. Over 3 million American children receive the pertussis vaccine every year and some have mild reactions. Severe reactions include high-pitched screaming, persistent crying, high fever, excessive sleepiness, convulsions, or collapse/shock that may lead to either death or permanent brain damage.
Mumps- The mumps inoculation is available as a single shot, however it has been most commonly given as part of the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine. There are two conditions that are linked to the mumps vaccine: meningitis and diabetes mellitus.
Rubella-The rubella vaccine is most often combined as the MMR shot. The common side effects of the vaccine include fever (5-15% of those who are inoculated), swelling of the glands, rash, or joint pain. Other adverse effects include thrombocytopenia, encephalitis, deafness, nerve pain, Guiliain-Barre syndrome, and numbness. Arthritis, along with pain and swelling of the joints, occurs in 25% of women who receive the rubella vaccine.
Tetanus -The tetanus immunization consists of a series of 3 tetanus toxoid injections, It provides protection from tetanus for approximately 10 years, The tetanus shot is often combined with other vaccines, although it can be given alone. Immediate vaccine reactions are usually mild, though some severe reactions have resulted in permanent disability from such things as Guiliain-Barre syndrome and other central nervous system diseases. (Note: For children and adults who are not vaccinated against tetanus, the tetanus immune globulin shot, TIG, is available after one has suffered an injury, This injection offers the most protection if it's received within the first 24-48 hours after an accident.)
What to Ask
According to the National Vaccine Information Center, every parent should ask eight questions before making immunization decision.
1. Is my child sick right now?
2. Has my child had a bad reaction to a vaccination before.
3. Does my child have a personal or family history of: a) vaccine reactions, b) convulsions or neurological disorders, c) severe allergies, d) immune system disorders?
4. Do I know if my child is at high risk of reacting?
5. Do I have full information on the vaccine's side effects.
6. Do I know how to identify a vaccine reaction?
7. Do I know how to report a vaccine reaction?
8. Do I know the vaccine manufacturer's name and lot number?
(For more information, visit the National Vaccine Information Center website at www.909shot.com)
Freedom of Choice
While the government does mandate that children receive immunizations, and most schools have policies that simply state, "no shots, no school," what many people don't know that there are exemptions that allow you to opt out of these requirements.
According to Fisher, there are medical exemptions available in all 50 states, "but they are hard to come by because you have to get a DO or MD to sign off on it." Religious exemptions are possible in all states except Virginia and Mississippi. "You can belong to a mainstream religion and still say you have beliefs against vaccines she add, noting that you can also apply for exemptions on philosophical/personal beliefs in 15 states.
If only about 1% of all people take these exemptions, why does the government care if they , or anyone for that matter, vaccinates? Because of something called herd immunity, which "kicks in when a certain percent of the population is vaccinated," says Curtis Allen, CDC spokesman. (For complete information on government lines, check out the CDC website at www.CDC.gov). "Vaccination breaks the chain of transmission, that why we strive to have high coverage, to protect society. He contends that the rise in the number of shots given has nothing to do with drug company profits. The only reason the government has approved more shots is "because now we can prevent more diseases."
Fisher does not agree with the CDC viewpoint. "We don't need 100% uptake in a population for herd immunity to take affect. The government is not treating people as individuals. They are treating them as a whole that needs to be protected. We have to move away from the one-size-fits-all approach."
According to Allen, the benefits of immunization exceed the risks for society as a whole and for individuals. "We know the consequences of failing to vaccinate and that would be the return of disease such as measles, mumps, and polio,"he says. "Vaccines are not 100% safe, but they're extremely safe and the risk of not vaccinating far outweighs the risk of vaccinating."
Not telling the public of dangers and allowing people to make informed decisions is one failing of the current system, according to Fisher, who notes that the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act requires that healthcare providers give parents copies of "vaccine information statements," which detail possible side effects, before administering any shots. "But there's no punishments for not doing it, so a lot of doctors don't, which makes it even more important that parents ask for information about the vaccine. If doctors say they don't have it, ask for the product manufacturer's insert, which they must have. After all, informed consent is a basic human right."
While the CDC does not commonly punish doctors for failing to inform patients of vaccine risks, it does keep track of and address adverse events that are reported. "We have a system in place to monitor vaccines, and if we find one that is not safe, we remove it from the market," says Allen. "We had a problem with the oral polio vaccine. About 4-5 cases per million developed polio, so we changed to an injectable vaccine."
According to Fisher, government oversight is not working well enough to protect children. More each year are getting injured. "There are 12,000-14,000 adverse events reported annually," she says, noting that due to under reporting, this is probably just a fraction of the actual number. "There's no question that vaccines are dangerous for some children," adds Fisher, who wonders how many more will suffer in the future.
Evelyn Gilbert is a New York City- based freelance writer and editor who has also written for The Village Voice, Marie Claire, Vegetarian Times, Natural Living Today and Woman's World; She can be contacted at email@example.com