Taking a shot

Posted: Apr 30, 2005 12:00 AM

Where some see a crisis, others see an opportunity.
Recently, the government announced it soon might face shortages of many common childhood vaccines. The federal stockpile, supposed to contain 41 million doses, now holds only about 13 million doses.

Some launched into crisis mode. ?I?d start the meeting at 1 o?clock, lock the door, and wouldn?t let anyone leave until they had found a solution,? Dr. Jerome Klein, a member of the National Vaccine Advisory Committee, told The Washington Post. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., intoned, ?Research shows that a vaccine delayed is a vaccine denied, and when kids are young we should never take that gamble.?

But this also can be an opportunity to discuss whether we need to be giving children all the shots they?re getting. After all, the greatest gamble may not be in skipping some shots, but in giving children shot after shot at a remarkably young age.

During a child?s first 18 months, the government recommends he receive up to 20 doses of vaccine to protect against 11 diseases. The amount of dangerous material we?re pumping into our children?s bodies, at an age when they?re especially vulnerable, is frightening.

?In humans, the most rapid period of brain development begins in the third trimester and continues over the first two years of extra uterine life. By then brain development is 80 percent complete,? notes Dr. Donald Miller, a professor of surgery at the University of Washington. He recommends delaying childhood vaccinations.

Under his schedule, children wouldn?t get any shots until age two (except the hepatitis B vaccine if their mothers tested positive). Even then, instead of the combined shots children get, Dr. Miller recommends shots be given one at a time, with at least six months between shots. That will ?allow the immune system sufficient time to recover and stabilize between shots,? he writes.

This schedule seems reasonable. Vaccinations are traumatic, and every parent worries about the effects of all those shots. Fifty years ago, children were vaccinated only against diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis and smallpox. These days, we inoculate against nearly a dozen diseases, even relatively harmless ones such as chicken pox.

One reason there are so many shots is because the government is gung-ho about immunizations. Sen. Schumer recently declared, ?For every day the government stands idle on this issue, we risk losing not inches or feet, but miles of the ground we have gained in recent years.?

But if immunizations were good for patients, they wouldn?t need to be mandated by government. After all, doctors don?t need the government to insist they treat patients for cancer or high blood pressure. But doctors seem to need the government to insist they give vaccinations. And because the government insists, it becomes responsible. So far, Washington has shelled out $1.5 billion to compensate children injured or killed by vaccinations.

Some pediatricians probably will dislike Dr. Miller?s schedule. After all, the Centers for Disease Control insists that children ?can safely receive all vaccines recommended for a particular age during one visit.? But the government?s definition of ?safe? differs from most parents? definition.

?Health officials consider a vaccine to be safe if no bad reactions -- like seizures, intestinal obstruction, or anaphylaxis -- occur acutely,? Dr. Miller writes. In other words, if a child doesn?t get sick within a few weeks, the vaccine is considered safe.

But there?s been no long-term study of the possible effects of vaccinations. Meanwhile, as the number of shots administered over the years has increased, so has the occurrence of serious developmental disorders, including autism and ADHD.

That anecdotal evidence doesn?t bother everyone. A few months ago, my child?s psychiatrist told me, ?I?m 100 percent certain that autism isn?t caused by vaccinations.? In fact, he added, about three quarters of psychiatrists aren?t even convinced there?s been a spike in autism; they say we?re just getting better at diagnosing it.

Parents of autistic children know better. Today, one in every 68 American families has an autistic child. It?s an epidemic, and something caused it. We must find out what.

A 2001 study from the Institute of Medicine Immunization?s Safety Review Committee claimed that vaccines are generally safe. But even that report admitted, ?Further research on the possible occurrence of Autism Spectrum Disorder in a small number of children subsequent to MMR vaccination is warranted.?

That?s medical-ese for ?further study is needed.?

We ought to use the vaccine shortage to create a control group and finally do that research. Because if all these shots are contributing to life-long conditions like autism, then they?re more dangerous than the diseases they purport to protect us against.