FEAT DAILY NEWSLETTER Sacramento, California
"Healing Autism: No Finer a Cause on the Planet"
August 28, 2000
1. The Issues
[The current Congressional Quarterly Researcher has a collection of
material looking at current vaccine issues and controversies, one of which
is the alleged links to autism. It is significant that these topics are
being addressed in such a politically prestigious publication. We are
reprinting some of these reports in this newsletter.]
It's school immunization season, and parents like Suzy Richards, of
Friendsville, Tenn., give public health officials nightmares.
Richards (not real name) recently decided to discontinue vaccinations
for her boys, ages 10 and 6, even though they haven't reacted negatively to
earlier vaccines. "There's no way to know for sure whether they will have a
negative reaction to the next one," she says.
Her fears were raised by reports about adverse vaccine reactions in
Parents magazine and on ABC's "Nightline" -- sources she trusts. "I've just
heard and read too many things about how kids can be harmed or develop
autism," she says. "I think they're just cramming these kids full of too
many shots too early in life."
Richards worries because the number of vaccines recommended for
children has been dramatically increasing. In 1960, children received 19
doses of four different vaccines before they reached school age. Today, an
American child receives up to 39 doses of 12 different vaccines, most given
during the first two years of life. And, unlike in previous decades, today's
youngsters often are given multiple inoculations on the same day.
But immunization experts like Samuel L. Katz, a pediatrics professor
emeritus at Duke University, say that parents like Richards threaten the
nation's health. "Unless we continue to achieve high levels of
immunization," he says, "terrible diseases will return -- some in epidemic
That's what happened in the former Soviet Union, when vaccination
rates dropped in the early 1990s, public health officials say. A diphtheria
epidemic broke out, and diphtheria cases skyrocketed from 839 in 1989 to
nearly 50,000 cases in 1994 (including 1,700 deaths), the U.S. Centers for
Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports. 
The CDC is quick to point out that most parents do not share Richards'
fears. "Vaccination rates are as high as they've ever been," says Benjamin
Schwartz, acting director of epidemiology and surveillance for the CDC's
National Immunization Program (NIP). "The vast majority of Americans support
But for a growing number of parents, getting their children
vaccinated -- once a no-brainer -- has become an agonizing and confusing
decision. It pits parents against their child's pediatrician and school,
other parents and local health officials.
A mother in South Carolina recently found out just how hard it is to
buck the system. The federal government had compensated her after her first
daughter was left with severe brain injuries following a DPT
(diphtheria-pertussis-tetanus) vaccine. But when local health authorities
found out she was not planning to let her youngest daughter get the same
vaccine, they threatened to charge her with child abuse and take her child
"We see cases like this all the time," says Barbara Loe Fisher,
president of the National Vaccine Information Center (NVIC), in Vienna, Va.
"She finally told them she had a gun and would leave the state to protect
her child from vaccine damage if they did not leave her alone."
Fisher helped found the NVIC in 1982 after her own son suffered brain
damage after his fourth DPT shot. She later co-authored a book, A Shot in
the Dark, about the dangers of the pertussis shot and the politics
surrounding its continued use in the United States, 15 years after a safer
version was available in Japan.
Other parents around the country -- including lawyers, scientists and
even public officials -- who say their children have been injured or killed
by vaccines have followed in her footsteps, organizing lobbying groups and
Web sites advocating safer vaccines, more informed consent about potential
risks and more freedom to choose which vaccines their children receive.
"I'm not anti-vaccine," Richards insists. "I just think the government
needs to do a better job of making sure they are as safe as possible."
Vaccine reformers were somewhat vindicated in recent years after the
CDC agreed to replace the DPT and oral polio vaccines with safer versions,
eliminate mercury from childhood vaccines and recall the new, genetically
engineered rotavirus vaccine (for severe diarrhea) after it caused
potentially life-threatening illnesses in some children. 
But those actions just fueled the controversy and catapulted the
debate from Internet chat rooms to congressional hearing rooms. In the past
year, House committees have held hearings on the safety of a new hepatitis B
vaccine, conflicts of interest among federal vaccine policy-makers, possible
links between vaccines and autism, the safety of mercury in vaccines and
whether the federal program that compensates people injured by vaccines is
And it's not just childhood vaccines that have come under fire.
Hundreds of men and women in the military have chosen early retirement or
court-martial rather than be vaccinated with a controversial anthrax
vaccine. Other soldiers claim multiple vaccines they received against
biological weapons are partly to blame for the mysterious Gulf War Syndrome
afflicting many veterans -- a claim the Defense Department has denied.
Ironically, the vaccine debate is partly the result of the success of
mass immunizations. Childhood immunization rates are at an all-time high,
except for pockets in some inner cities. And once-dreaded childhood
diseases, such as measles, diphtheria, mumps and whooping cough, are at or
near record lows. Smallpox has been wiped off the Earth, and polio has been
eradicated from the Western Hemisphere.
"Vaccines have prevented thousands of deaths," says the CDC's
But as vaccination rates climb, chronic diseases and conditions, like
asthma, allergies, diabetes, autism and learning disorders, are increasing
nationwide among children, often at alarming rates. Some parents and doctors
are questioning whether the rise in chronic disease may be a long-term
effect of childhood vaccinations.
"Are we living in a different society where people have fewer
infections because of immunizations and we have somehow changed our immune
systems?" asked Edward Bailey, medical director of the Springfield, Mass.,
school system. 
Critics say much of their concern stems from the fact that today's new
vaccines are not for diseases that occur in epidemic proportions, at least
not in the industrialized world. In the 1990s, for instance, the four new
vaccines added to state mandatory-immunization schedules were for hepatitis
B, rotavirus, Haemophilus influenzae (Hib) and pneumococcal disease --
infections that don't sweep through populations, wiping out victims by the
Today's vaccines are different in another way. With the advent of new
technologies and years of heavy investment and research in DNA-based
vaccines, dozens of biotech companies are now competing with traditional
manufacturers to produce genetically engineered vaccines for all kinds of
conditions. Parents who think their kids are already getting too many
vaccines might be shocked to learn that more than 200 new vaccines are in
the pipeline, to treat everything from cocaine addiction to herpes.
Just because a new childhood vaccine is available, critics say, it
shouldn't automatically be included on the mandatory-immunization schedule.
That question was raised after the CDC recommended a vaccine for the
relatively innocuous chickenpox and one for hepatitis B -- a disease
primarily found among prostitutes, gay men and drug abusers.
"We are not discriminating as to which are the appropriate vaccines
for the appropriate populations, taking into account what the reasonable
risk for that population is," says Ronald Kennedy, professor of microbiology
and immunology at the University of Oklahoma.
Vaccine-policy critics also note that once a new vaccine is added to
the federal childhood immunization schedule, manufacturers have a guaranteed
market because every child in America is generally required to receive it
before entering school. The recommendations are also taken into
consideration when the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends vaccines
for use in Third World countries.
Yet those same manufacturers, as well as pediatricians who administer
the shots, are largely exempt from lawsuits by parents of injured children,
thanks to a 1986 law that made the government, not the vaccine producers,
liable for damages caused by mandatory vaccinations. The fund is financed
with taxes on vaccines. As a result, activists argue, both the government
and the billion-dollar vaccine industry have powerful stakes in downplaying
As the debate over vaccines continues, here are some of the key
questions being asked:
Are vaccines safe?
Vaccines are among the "safest pharmacological interventions for
disease prevention available," says epidemiologist Roger Bernier, associate
director for science at the CDC's National Immunization Program.
Health officials are quick to point out that the odds a child will die
or become disabled from the diseases targeted by vaccines are far greater
than being harmed by the vaccine. Without the diphtheria vaccine, Bernier
says, 6 million people would have died during the 20th century.
"The real question," says Paul Offit, chief of infectious diseases at
Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, "is, Do the benefits of vaccines
definitively outweigh the risks? For all children's vaccines, that is
clearly the case."
That was even true for the rotavirus vaccine, he contends. "A million
children got the vaccine, and 100 got sick and one died. Yet now that it's
off the market, if a million children don't get the vaccine, 16,000 will be
hospitalized and 10 will die. It's still safer to get the vaccine."
Still, Offit adds, vaccines are not completely harmless. Of the 3
million children who receive vaccines each year, "a small percentage will
have a severe allergic reaction, such as hives, difficulty breathing and low
blood pressure," he says.
Such statements enrage parents like Michelle Helms, whose son Zachary
died 33 hours after receiving his childhood vaccinations.
"Why aren't parents told about the real dangers these vaccines pose?"
she asks on the Web site for the Global Vaccine Awareness League, the
advocacy group she co-founded after Zachary's death. "Knowing that, I could
have seen the tell-tale signs of a vaccine reaction and done something to
save his life." 
Public trust in official reassurances about vaccine safety began
eroding in 1976, when many people reportedly contracted Guillain-Barr~
Syndrome after being vaccinated against the swine flu, an epidemic that
never materialized. In the 1980s, a television documentary about the dangers
of the DPT shot spurred a flurry of lawsuits against DPT manufacturers. Then
in the early 1990s, Persian Gulf War veterans began questioning the safety
of the many vaccinations they received before shipping out.
Other incidents and revelations have spurred skepticism about vaccine
Studies linking the DPT vaccine to seizures and brain damage in rare
cases. The U.S. government finally licensed a safer, but less profitable,
version of the vaccine (DTaP) in 1996 -- 15 years after the Japanese had
begun using it. 
In another series of studies, the Institute of Medicine (IOM)
concluded that the diphtheria-tetanus vaccine could cause Guillain-Barr~
Syndrome and death, the rubella vaccine could cause acute and chronic
arthritis and the live measles and oral polio vaccines could cause viral
infection and death. 
A French court ruled in 1998 that SmithKline Beecham's hepatitis B
vaccine had caused a child to get multiple sclerosis, prompting France to
suspend compulsory hepatitis B vaccinations for schoolchildren. U.S. public
health officials say there is no proof that the vaccine, the first
genetically engineered vaccine to be mandated, causes multiple sclerosis or
any other chronic or autoimmune disease.
Mandatory inoculations with the new rotavirus vaccine, genetically
engineered from a monkey-human hybrid virus and widely hailed as a
breakthrough in the prevention of dehydrating diarrhea, were suspended in
1999 after a significant number of inoculated infants suffered from
life-threatening bowel blockages.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) acknowledged in 1999 that
vaccines expose infants in the first six months of life to levels of the
neurotoxin mercury considered unsafe by the Environmental Protection Agency
(EPA). The CDC recommended a voluntary transition to mercury-free vaccines
by next spring, despite urgings from some scientists and parent groups that
it should be phased out faster.
The CDC recommended in January that live, oral polio vaccines be
replaced by the inactivated, injectable version because the live vaccine
caused up to 10 cases of polio a year among children and their caretakers.
Scientists are studying whether vaccines produced from animal tissue,
like monkey and bovine cells, can transfer previously undetected viruses
that can cause cancer or other diseases in humans.
 See CDC report "Six Common Misconceptions about Vaccination," at
 For background, see Craig Donegan, "Gene Therapy's Future," The CQ
Researcher, Dec. 8, 1995, pp. 1089-1112.
 Quoted in Susan Fenelon Kerr, "Poor health among children
confounds parents, doctors," Union News, Sunday Republican, July 30, 2000.
 The Web site is: www.gval.com
 For details on the DPT vaccine controversy, see Andrea Rock, "The
Lethal Dangers of the Billion-Dollar Vaccine Business," Money, December
 Kathleen R. Stratton et al, "DPT Vaccine and Chronic Nervous
System Dysfunction: A New Analysis" (1994).
From the CQ Researcher of Aug 25, 2000
© 2000 Congressional Quarterly Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Take Some Mystery out of Autism
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