Magazine article Insight on the News

Ounce of Prevention, Pound of Misery?

Magazine article Insight on the News

Ounce of Prevention, Pound of Misery?

Article excerpt

Thousands have claimed bad reactions to their hepatitis B inoculation. So why isn't the health bureaucracy's mass vaccination policy being investigated by Congress?

When nurses gave her newborn son another injection, the room filled with the sound of his healthy cry. Julienne Jack recalls wondering through the haze of her postlabor exhaustion what that one was for. In fact, it was the hepatitis B vaccine, which Ohio mandated for all its newborns -- a safe inoculation without known side effects, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC, in Atlanta.

But as she took her tiny firstborn into her arms again, coaxing him to nurse, Jack sensed something disturbing in the sound of his cry, the strange restlessness of his movements, a sudden yellowing of his skin. It was a relief when he seemed to slip into peaceful stillness in her arms. Just 27 hours old, she remembers thinking. She daydreamed of the future for their family of three until the night nurse came to return the baby to his crib. Something in his appearance as the nurse lifted him from her arms, however, tore a cry from her throat: "What's wrong with him?"

The nurse rushed Brandon out of the room and down the hall in search of help. After an hour, bed-bound by the lingering effects of an epidural, Jack faced the news alone: Little more than an hour after receiving the hepatitis B vaccination, her baby was dead.

No explanation was offered. The mystified coroner marked the cause of death unknown. Two years later a death certificate still has not been issued.

In Jack's eyes, the chain of events that day in the hospital implicates the vaccination. Brandon's doctors, though they voluntarily waived the family's medical bills, deny any such connection. The lawyer whose help the family enlisted to obtain copies of the medical records sent a letter saying the Jacks had no case against any of the medical professionals involved because he could find "no reports of any serious reaction to the vaccination."

In fact, "no confirmed reactions" is the standard line of federal officials in most cases, although since 1990 more than 24,000 reports of possible adverse reactions to the hepatitis B vaccine have been registered with the Food and Drug Administration's Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System, or VAERS, including a significant number of severe injuries and deaths.

Federal guidelines issued in 1991 recommending three doses of the vaccine for health professionals coming into contact with blood, at-risk groups including intravenous drug users and people with multiple sex partners -- and every child born after 1990 -- remain unchanged. At least 35 states mandated the vaccine for entrance to kindergarten by 1996, and in 1977 the Advisory Commission on Immunization Programs reported vaccination of 84 percent of America's 19- to 35-month-olds.

In January 1999, the CDC further expanded its goals, calling for universal immunization of children up to age 18. Government agencies and pharmaceutical groups categorically deny that the VAERS reports are cause for alarm, explaining that the purpose of the data collection merely is to reveal unexpected patterns, that the adverse-reaction numbers may be inflated due to double reporting and that no scientific data prove the vaccine is the cause of the problems.

"Bad things happen to people all the time. It's unfortunate that we don't know the causes of many of those," says Neal Halsey, a leader in the American Academy of Pediatrics and director of the vaccine safety center at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. But Barbara Fisher, founder of the watchdog group National Vaccine Information Center, or NVIC (on the World Wide Web at, objects. "Why can no one confirm or deny a causal relationship in these tens of thousands of adverse reports?" she asks. "Because the kind of scientific studies that could reveal the link have not been done. …

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