"The Risk-Reward Ratio For Childhood Vaccines Seems Small, But Politics And A Dearth Of Long-Term Research May Keep Us From Getting Clear Answers About Side Effects."

ABC NEWS Commentary On Vaccine Debate
Written by Nicholas Regush

The vaccine debate continues its breakthrough into the mainstream media.  I hope the latest congressional hearing on childhood vaccines doesn't  turn out to be yet another flash-in-the-pan noisemaker that fizzles into  a lame, embarrassing (and to some communities, X-rated) genuflection to  the status quo. These lawmaker health issue "hearings" typically end up  pimping to the interests of high-flyer doctors and scientists and the  pharmaceutical industry that adores and nurses them.

I'm sure the goal - exploring the vaccine safety issue - was well  intentioned. Rep. Dan Burton, R-Indiana, the chairman of the House  Government Reform Committee, became concerned after two of his  grandchildren developed side effects and a child known to his family died following vaccination. Skeptical that the three events could simply be coincidence, Burton wondered how often this actually occurs.

Dig Deep, Dan. So along comes U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher to inform the committee about the benefits of mass childhood vaccination, in particular that vaccines have protected us from once rampaging diseases such as polio, measles, tetanus and meningitis. Sure, serious side effects can occur, Satcher said, but they're rare, and the benefits far outweigh any risks. In fact, vaccines are thought by the many to be safest, most effective medicines we have. Well, maybe so. I'm sure it would feel terrific to be as hopeful as Satcher about the risk-benefit ratio. But I trust Burton is not moved by knee-jerk propaganda any more than I am and is interested in real science. The problem, if he checks, is he'll probably end up asking, "What science?"

And that's when he should get some serious hearings in gear. I know, it's tough to brush up against motherhood and apple pie, but if he's truly interested in digging into vaccine safety, then I suggest he buy himself a very big, strong shovel. If Burton really wants to know how many vaccine side effects occur in this country, he will be hard-pressed to arrive at a satisfying answer. Studies to monitor reactions to new vaccines are very short-term, sometimes lasting only weeks after vaccination. And then it's up to doctors to report reactions to the FDA, which they do, of course, but this is voluntary and assumes physicians can actually make the connection between an illness and a vaccine.

Each year, the FDA handles about 12,000 vaccine-related reports, but readily admits that this represents only a fraction of actual side effects. Burton would also be strapped to find much research exploring how multiple vaccinations might affect the body's immune system, possibly leading to a variety of diseases, including diabetes and asthma. Where are the long-term clinical trials and laboratory research to probe this potentially hellish connection?

I presume Burton is aware that often when researchers suggest a link between vaccines and disease, they are attacked as less than scientific and portrayed as mavericks that are only frightening the public. Take the situation of Bart Classen, a Maryland physician who published data showing that diabetes rates rose significantly in New Zealand following a massive hepatitis B vaccine campaign in young children, and that diabetes rates also went up sharply in Finland after three new childhood vaccines were introduced. Classen took a poke from a vaccine advocacy group who put the word out to some of us at ABCNEWS that he was a lone wolf who had misinterpreted the data. Classen would be the first to recommend more research. But why bother promoting further research or debating the science when it's easier to protect your interests by smearing someone?

And then there were the British doctors who published data on 12 children showing a possible link between a measles, mumps and rubella vaccine and two illnesses, a new bowel disease and autism. They took nasty hits from both sides of the Atlantic from vaccine researchers who claimed they were needlessly frightening the public with information that was only preliminary. This happened despite the fact that the British researchers made it clear that they had not proven an association between the diseases and the vaccine, but that they felt it was important to raise a red flag and generate more research. I hope Burton also digs deeply enough with to find out how vaccine science and policy are orchestrated in this country - and by whom. It's not pretty.

Abcnews.Com To Congress On Vaccines: "Dig Deep, Dan" Thursday, August 05, 1999 "The Risk-Reward Ratio For Childhood Vaccines Seems Small, But Politics And A Dearth Of Long-Term Research May Keep Us From Getting Clear Answers About Side Effects." (A.Shepherd/ABCNEWS.Com)