Measuring Risk: Vaccines Save Lives, but Also Cause Health Problems. (Your Health)

Article excerpt

Once upon a time, smallpox was a demon, killing more human beings than all the wars in history. The virus could not be cured by antibiotics--those only work on bacteria. The only effective attack was prevention. Through a series of vaccines, by 1977 smallpox was effectively eradicated from the planet.

Viruses cause annoyances like the common cold, but they can also kill: Diphtheria, for instance, kills one tenth of those who contract it. Tetanus kills one third. Vaccines have greatly improved the odds of human survival, but there are risks. The tetanus vaccine is known to cause severe nervous reactions in one person out of 100,000, and severe allergic reactions in one person out of each million.

There is no question that vaccines have saved lives, and that benefits generally have outweighed risks. But with the scourge of many diseases passing out of living memory, a finer evaluation of risks is coming to the fore. What if the risks aren't simple, immediate reactions to the vaccine, like getting a light case of the illness it's intended to prevent? What if the risks involve subtler damage to the immune or nervous system?

Like the pesticide debate, the question with vaccines isn't simply about whether or not they work and the safety of their primary components. The question is also about ingredients, which may cause unanticipated problems.

Vaccines have been controversial since their inception, for reasons ranging from interfering with God's judgment against evil doers to modern concerns about individual risks. Horrific personal stories, hyperbole and some reputable studies purportedly linking childhood vaccines to everything from ear infections and asthma to autoimmune disorders and autism flood the Internet. Some sites offer credible information, while others simply offer quotes from people who are not identified beyond their names, and whose credibility therefore cannot be judged.

The Thimerosal Question

Aluminum, used to stimulate immune response, and antibiotics (to kill bacteria) are present in very small doses in vaccines, and a groundswell of concern about them may develop. But'the chief villain in the eye of the anti-vaccine Internet storm is thimerosal, a mercury-based preservative added to many vaccines. In 1999 the U.S. Food and Drug Administration found that the regular schedule of recommended childhood immunizations put more total mercury--by way of thimerosal--into infants' bodies than recommended under more stringent guidelines set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). That summer, the American Academy of Pediatrics officially recommended that the country move to thimerosal-free children's vaccines.

Hundreds of parents say they watched their otherwise healthy children suddenly become autistic after getting routine vaccinations. Several lawsuits are in the works, aimed at court recognition of a link. "A lot of the vaccine critics feel that there are similarities between brain damage seen with mercury and ... the kinds of symptoms you see with autism," says Dr. Robert Wolfe, professor of medicine at Northwestern University. Representative Dan Burton (R-IN) is one of those convinced of a connection, and he believes that vaccines caused his grandson's autism. "I'm so ticked off about my grandson, and to think that the publiohealth people have been circling the wagons to cover up the facts!" Burton said in a Congressional hearing recently. …