By Deb Barracato
Photos by Paulette Phlipot
“These days, vaccination ranks alongside religion and politics as one of those subjects ‘not to discuss around the Thanksgiving table,’” state Idaho filmmakers Leslie Manookian, Kendall Nelson, and Chris Pilaro on their website. But what topic could be more universally compelling than the health and well-being of our children? The trio produced the 2011 documentary film The Greater Good to stimulate conversation about the safety of the childhood immunization program in the United States.
As with any controversial topic, the vaccine debate rages from the far corners of public opinion. Science and anecdotes spar, and statistics and data are manipulated to support opposing sides. With information that can be both overwhelming and misleading, it is difficult for parents to know what to believe and who to trust. In this article, Teton Family Magazine aims to provide an informational starting point for local parents.
ARE VACCINES SAFE?
The Food and Drug Administration, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, vaccine manufacturers, American Academy of Pediatrics, and most board-certified physicians say “yes”—albeit while acknowledging that a small risk exists with any type of medical intervention. According to the CDC, severe reactions to vaccines occur so rarely that the risk is difficult to calculate. The federally operated Vaccine Adverse Events Reporting System (VAERS) collects information on suspected vaccine reactions. However, no certifiable statistics exist for the number of vaccines administered to children in this country each year for comparison, although the CDC estimates the total is in the millions. Additionally, VAERS collects and evaluates the data from approximately 30,000 reports each year, but cannot provide definitive evidence of causal associations between vaccines and specific risks. Instead, the reporting system identifies suspicious signals that warrant investigation.
According to independent groups and researchers, the statistics don’t tell the real story. They’re voluntarily reported, so even the CDC acknowledges the likelihood of under-representation and the limitations of the resulting data. “There is a growing group of scientists who have serious concerns about the safety of vaccines—this is a scientific debate—and to ignore these concerns is folly,” says Manookian. Without more independent testing and oversight, there’s simply no way to determine the true safety of vaccines, the dissenters argue.
WHAT’S IN A VACCINE?
The ingredients, which can include aluminum, formaldehyde, and mercury, largely inspire the safety concerns surrounding vaccines.
In toxic doses, aluminum—the most abundant metal in the earth’s crust—can cause neurological problems, giving rise to suspicions that its use in vaccines may be a source of the increase in some chronic behavioral and physiological disorders in children. The CDC estimates that an infant receives about four milligrams of aluminum from vaccines in the first six months of life—far less than the amount thought to cause problems. Arguably, during the same period, a baby ingests approximately ten milligrams of aluminum in breast milk or forty milligrams in infant formula. Still, the National Vaccine Information Center (NVIC) points out that the true nature of the use of aluminum in vaccines isn’t known because the FDA protects the information as a trade secret.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency limits the presence of elemental mercury to 2 parts per billion for drinking water. Before 2001, the hepatitis B vaccine administered at birth in the U.S. contained 25,000 ppb, although it was organic and not elemental mercury—making comparison irrelevant, says pediatrician Dr. Travis Riddell, public health officer for Teton County, Wyoming. Concerns surfaced in the late 1990s linking this mercury in vaccines to autism, although twelve studies conducted since have rejected the association.
“Any substance, including water and oxygen, can be toxic if a human is exposed to it in an excessive quantity,” Dr. Riddell points out. “All of the ingredients found in vaccines have been thoroughly tested by multiple methodologies and no evidence of toxicity has been found at the dose levels contained in vaccines.”
Barbara Loe Fisher, founder and president of the NVIC, has made her life’s work out of questioning whether vaccines are responsible for what she calls “an epidemic of chronic disease and disability” among American children. In a 2004 special report for Mothering magazine, she asked: “Could it have anything to do with exposing our children to more and more bacterial and live virus vaccines in the first five years of life, when the brain and immune system develop most rapidly? And could we be compromising the integrity of our immune systems by eliminating all experience of natural infection?”
In 2013, Fisher still does not believe the government and pharmaceutical companies have adequately answered those questions.
ARE VACCINES EFFECTIVE?
Again, the government oversight agencies and pharmaceutical companies say “yes,” attributing the eradication of smallpox and the significant decline of other infectious childhood diseases, such as measles, mumps, and rubella to the widespread use of vaccines.
On the other side, those questioning the effectiveness of vaccines argue that scrutiny of the data shows many infectious diseases were already on a steady decline in this country when vaccines were widely introduced in the mid-twentieth century. Researchers attribute this largely to nationwide improvements in nutrition, sanitation, personal hygiene, and accessibility of health care and information, in addition to the natural progression of a disease cycle.
But some public health officials fear that recent pockets of pertussis (whopping cough) and measles outbreak in the U.S. could correlate to a decrease in vaccination rates. In 2010, foreign governments began cautioning their citizens against travel to California because of a pertussis outbreak there. And measles, the most infectious of all childhood diseases, reappeared in this country ten years after the World Health Organization declared the disease eradicated in the Americas, except for Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
NVIC’s Fisher thinks that takes too simplistic a view of the situation. She cites statistics that show increases in pertussis cases every four to five years, despite vaccination rates. And, she points out, the CDC in September of this year reported that fewer than 2 percent of American schoolchildren claimed vaccine exemptions, with most states reporting greater than the 85 or 90 percent median coverage needed to achieve so-called “herd immunity.” That’s the overall rate of coverage required to thwart introduction of a vaccine-preventable disease into a population.
Still, the CDC warns that vaccination exemptions tend to cluster geographically, making those particular communities more prone to a disease outbreak.
HOW DO VACCINES WORK?
“I think of vaccines like boot camp for your body,” says Carmela Gupta, immunization outreach and communication manager for the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare. “It gets you ready so that when you really are under attack by a virus or bacteria, your body knows how to respond effectively and fight off the threat.”
Vaccines contain weakened or dead strains of germs that cause disease. Putting them into your body stimulates the creation of antibodies that fight off the germ. The antibodies, once established, stick around for a long time, lying in wait for the real disease to attempt an attack. Your body’s ability to mount a quick response is called immunity.
Dr. Jason West, a chiropractic physician and naturopathic medical doctor at the West Clinic in Pocatello, believes our bodies already have the ability to combat infectious diseases, without the necessity of vaccine intervention. “All day long we’re coming into constant contact with bacteria and viruses,” he says. “If you have a healthy, functioning immune system, it neutralizes the enemy.” Dr. West recommends “the basics” as the most effective defense against any contagious illness: good food, good air, good water, good sleeping habits, lots of exercise, and a clean environment.
HOW WILL I KNOW IF MY CHILD REACTS TO A VACCINE?
First and foremost, trust your parental intuition. An initial reaction may be subtle. Note any changes in your child’s behavior or temperament. “Pay extra attention to your child for a few days after vaccination. If you see something that concerns you, call your child’s doctor,” recommends Dr. Riddell, while noting that anything beyond a mild reaction such as soreness at the injection site will be a rare occurrence.
Dr. West recommends nutritional therapy and a detoxifying regimen following vaccination, whether there’s an obvious reaction or not. He prescribes specific detoxification regimens for the preservatives and chemicals in the vaccines, and suggests avoiding sugar, food dyes, and genetically modified foods as a matter of course for good health.
DO I HAVE A CHOICE WHETHER TO VACCINATE OR NOT?
All fifty states mandate vaccines for children attending public and private schools, with medical exemptions permitted for those in high-risk groups. All but two states allow parents to file exemptions on religious grounds, and twenty states, including Idaho but not Wyoming, have provisions for philosophical exemptions.
For children born after September 1, 2005, Idaho requires five DTaP shots (Diphtheria, Tetanus, Pertussis), two MMR (Measles, Mumps, Rubella), four Polio, three Hepatitis B, two Varicella (chickenpox), and two Hepatitis A. The CDC additionally recommends a yearly inoculation against the flu, and vaccines for Rotavirus, Haemophilus influenza type b, and Pneumococcal.
For children entering kindergarten through grade six, Wyoming requires five DTaPs, two MMR, three to four Polio, three Hepatitis B, two Varicella (or documented history of the disease), and one to four Hib (Haemophilus influenza type b). The CDC additionally recommends a yearly inoculation against the flu, and vaccines for Rotavirus, Hepatitis A, and Pneumococcal.
ARE THERE ALTERNATIVES?
Dr. West likens it to the philosophy on liberty usually attributed to Patrick Henry: The price of good health is eternal vigilance. “Balanced people don’t get sick or suffer symptoms,” he says. But it requires a healthy lifestyle. Eating organically produced whole foods may be the best preventative medicine available. And, he adds, studies show that consistent exercise outperforms almost every natural substance and prescriptive medicine. “Walk every day,” he says. “You can’t be a couch potato; that’s not a recipe for good health.”
Vaccination aims to strengthen the immune system, so any effort to do the same without pharmaceutical intervention can also reduce the risk of contracting an infectious illness. However, Dr. Riddell believes nothing is as effective as vaccines in preventing the specific diseases in question.
Ultimately, a parent can make the decision about whether to accept all or no vaccine recommendations. “For me and my children, the vaccine is not worth the risk,” says Dr. West. “That’s my decision, but I won’t make that for other people.”
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Vaccines and Immunizations
National Vaccine Information Center
Idaho Department of Health and Welfare, Immunizations, (208) 334-5931
Wyoming Department of Health, Immunization Unit, (307) 777-7952