Magazine article The Exceptional Parent

Telling David's Story: One Father's Fight to Increase the Safety of Childhood Immunizations

Magazine article The Exceptional Parent

Telling David's Story: One Father's Fight to Increase the Safety of Childhood Immunizations

Article excerpt

Today my six-year-old son, David, started karate. To most parents, such an occasion would be one of many proud events in the growth of their child; however, for my wife, Kathy, and me it was much more. Only five years ago, David contracted polio and we thought he might never walk.

It was in the fall of 1990 when we, like millions of other parents, brought our seemingly healthy baby to the pediatrician for his routine vaccinations. David cried as the doctor and nurses administered his shots and oral vaccination. The memory of that cry still haunts me, as I now realize what we brought upon David that day.

Within 48 hours David had a high fever and rash, and, within weeks, our active baby boy could no longer use his legs to crawl. Our son had contracted polio from the vaccine that was supposed to protect him. (We later learned that David was born with a genetic disorder known as Brutons agammaglobulinemm, which left him with only a limited immune system and made him vulnerable to the polio vaccine he had been given.)

Disbelief turns to auger

Kathy and I felt a myriad of emotions when we reamed David had contracted this dreaded disease, which only 40 years ago had afflicted millions. Our disbelief quickly fumed to fear as we looked ahead to an uncertain future for our only son. We also felt guilty, since by providing for David's vaccinations we had unwittingly participated in making him a victim of polio. But we were also angry, and the more we reamed, the angrier we became. Why didn't our doctors tell us about potential risks and options? We finally decided to channel our anger into a crusade to ensure that other children would not suffer the same fate.

I began to research the U.S. polio immunization program. I was especially interested in comparing the original Salk vaccine to the Sabin vaccine developed several years later. Both vaccines share the credit for the virtual eradication of polio in the United States. However, the Sabin vaccine became the vaccine of choice for several reasons: 1) it was orally administered (the Salk vaccine needed to be injected); 2) it was believed that this "live" vaccine would be more effective than Salk's "killed" vaccine; and 3) the Sabin vaccine was less expensive to produce. For the sake of an easy-to administer and cost-effective universal vaccination program, the government decided to promote the oral Sabin vaccine, even though it was known that a small number of children each year would actually contract polio from it.

Telling our story

I began a letter-writing campaign in earnest. I wrote letters to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), to individual members of a working group that had been established to explore possible changes in our national vaccine program, to members of Congress and even to President Clinton. I talked to the National Vaccine Information Center (NVIC) to share our experience and ask for any information or help they could provide. Finally, thinking I could take my case directly to the people, I also sent dozens of letters to medical reporters across the country. My message was simple: Since wild polio has not existed in the United States for nearly 20 years, isn't it time that the government began to encourage the use of the effective and safe killed polio vaccine to prevent more victims like David?

For several years, it seemed no one was interested in our story. Finally, in June 1995, the NVIC asked me to appear before a CDC committee at a conference in Washington, where I and other parents would testify about our experiences with vaccinations that had caused disabilities. After four years, I finally had the chance to tell the stories of David and the more than 100 other children who had contracted polio from a live vaccine over the past 10 years.

I knew that this was my one chance to be heard and that I had to present the most persuasive case possible for changing the polio vaccine program. …

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