Monday 4 December 2000
Polio is no longer crippling Canadian kids. Diphtheria is no longer killing them. Smallpox has been wiped off the face of the globe.
Yet despite what many accept as solid proof that mass-immunization programs can and do work, a small but vocal segment of the population views vaccinations as at best unnecessary and at worst a grave threat to the health of the children who receive them.
In the face of this continued resistance, public-health officials, doctors, nurses and experts have gathered in Halifax for a conference aimed at providing them with the ammunition to answer the critics.
Foes say shots meant to protect children from diseases ranging from mumps to polio actually cause illnesses and conditions far more serious than those they are meant to combat.
The illnesses claimed include autism, asthma, attention-deficit disorder, multiple sclerosis, diabetes and other auto-immune diseases.
"It's only a theory," Winnipeg chiropractor Gerry Bohemier said of the idea that immunizations work.
"There is no information to indicate these vaccinations are safe, these vaccinations are necessary or these vaccinations are the only thing that they could do to improve people's protection from some of these diseases."
Not so, says Dr. Robert Pless, medical epidemiologist at the Centres for Disease Control in Atlanta and a keynote speaker at the conference. "There are good studies. There are lots of good studies. And one just needs to search the literature and find them," he said.
Pless makes no bones about what he thinks of immunization programs: "Vaccines have been miracles."
But he admitted that their very success probably contributes to the cause of the critics. "We don't see vaccine-preventable diseases in the form they once were. So people forget what things were like when polio shut down parks and kept kids at home," he said.
But just because children can swim in a public pool without fear of ending up in an iron lung doesn't mean the threat has gone away. Polio has been eradicated from the Western world because people have been immunized. But it exists in other parts of the globe and it's only ever a plane ride away.
"I think most people understand that if we stop immunizing, the diseases will return," Pless said. "And we have examples of that happening in countries that have lost confidence in their immunization programs."
Fears about the safety of pertussis (whooping cough) vaccine in the mid-1970s led Britain, Sweden and Japan to abandon their immunization programs for that disease. Rates of the disease soared in all three countries. Scores of children died of a disease that just a few years earlier was virtually nonexistent.
Still, the experts don't issue a blanket assurance that vaccines are safe. No medical intervention is without potential side-effects. In the case of vaccines, some children are allergic to some of the components - some to the point of going into anaphylactic shock.
"We're not saying vaccines don't have side-effects. We're not saying that in rare cases, they don't have serious side-effects. But they've never been shown to cause more illness than the disease they're meant to prevent," Pless insisted. "In fact, it would be preposterous to use them (if they did). We're not in the business of harming children."
Bohemier is not convinced. He runs the Eagle Foundation, which helps families who say their children have suffered long-term damage and, in a few cases, death from vaccinations.
He has four children, age 14 to 21. None has been vaccinated. All are perfectly healthy, Bohemier said.
A key to Bohemier's theory is his belief that the immune system's production of antibodies is a limited resource, and that if you tax yours by producing antibodies to face an artificial threat - the dead virus in a vaccine - you might not have the ability to fight off diseases when the real ones come along.
"It has been shown, by many critics of vaccines ... that by doing it in this artificial method, not only are you not producing a valuable and long-term benefit to the body but you are taxing the body's immune system to the point where you may be in fact derailing the system," he said.
Bohemier notes that the rise of auto-immune diseases has paralleled the rise in the use of vaccines. Auto-immune diseases occur when the body attacks a part of itself, like the insulin-producing cells of the pancreas in the case of a diabetic. "Where is this epidemic of allergies coming from?" he asks. "What are we doing to our genetics?"
Pless countered: "Yes, we've been introducing new vaccines and yes, there is a rise in diabetes and asthma in the populations." But two trends are only that - two trends - unless it is proved through sound scientific research that there is a link between them, he said.
- More information on the safety of vaccines can be found at the following
Web sites: the World Health Organization: (www.who.int/vaccines-diseases);
Health Canada (www.hc-sc.gc.ca/hpb/lcdc/publicat/ccdr/97vol23/imm_sup/index.html);
the Centres for Disease Control (www.cdc.gov/nip/).