Think You’ve Answered the Vaccine Question? Think Again.

Since doing some research for two blogs I thought I knew where I came down on the controversy over the link between the MMR vaccine and autism. The Institute of Medicine (IOM) has found no solid evidence that the vaccine has contributed to the increase of the incidence of autism in children. As the IOM is about as prestigious a medical authority as there is, I decided to defer to the current wisdom on the subject. But after publishing the blogs a statistic continued to nag me: the incidence of autism has increased tenfold in the last ten years. According to Autism Speaks, a leading science and advocacy organization, it is estimated that 1 in 110 children in US are now diagnosed with autism! Government statistics suggest the prevalence rate of autism is increasing 10 to 17 percent annually. While it is still unclear whether this is due to an increasing rate of the disorder or an increased ability to diagnose it, I kept asking myself, “What would I do if I had kids?”

So – back to the internet, or the drawing board, if you will, to see if I could ease my doubts. One thing’s certain – heavy hitters like the IOM may have made up their minds about MMR’s link with autism but many independent physicians and researchers disagree. Quotes I discovered on the subject by doctors, medical organizations and journals literally stopped me in my tracks. I present some of them here with a final thought on the subject: the alarming increase in the incidence of autism hasn’t happened by accident. We tinker constantly with the basic building blocks of life through extensive use of genetically engineered foods, pesticides, synthetic chemicals, prescription drugs and vaccines whose long-term effects are, in many cases, unknown. The use of DDT and thalidomide, for example, is still fresh in our collective memory; their effects on the environment and on the unborn exacted a terrible toll. Perhaps the MMR vaccine is not the culprit, but considering the track record with such substances, a link between the rise in autism and some synthetic process or substance is one to be seriously considered.    

“Autism may be a disorder linked to the disruption of the G-alpha protein, affecting retinoid receptors in the brain. A study of sixty autistic children suggests that autism may be caused by inserting a G-alpha protein defect, the pertussis toxin found in the D.P.T. vaccine, into genetically at-risk children.” –Mary N. Megson, M.D.

“This report describes six mothers who received live virus vaccines and one who received a Hepatitis B vaccine during pregnancy after having received an MMR booster five months prior to conception. All the children who resulted from these pregnancies have had developmental problems, six out seven (85%) were diagnosed with autism, and the seventh seems to exhibit symptoms often associated with autistic spectrum disorders.” –F. EdwardYazbak, MD

“Every day new parents are ringing us. They all have the same tragic story. Healthy baby, child, teenager, usually a boy, given the DPT (diphtheria, pertussis and tetanus) or DT (diphtheria and tetanus), MMR or MMR booster followed by a sudden fall or slow, but steady decline into autism or other spectrums disorder.”–The Hope Project (Ireland)

“There is no evidence whatsoever of the ability of vaccines to prevent any diseases. To the contrary, there is a great wealth of evidence that they cause serious side effects.” — Dr. Viera Scheibner

“My data proves that the studies used to support immunisation are so flawed that it is impossible to say if immunisation provides a net benefit to anyone or to society in general. This question can only be determined by proper studies which have never been performed. The flaw of previous studies is that there was no long term follow up and chronic toxicity was not looked at. The American Society of Microbiology has promoted my research…and thus acknowledges the need for proper studies.” –John B.Classen, M.D., M.B.A.

“The medical authorities keep lying. Vaccination has been a disaster on the immune system. It actually causes a lot of illnesses. We are changing our genetic code through vaccination.” –Guylaine Lanctot M.D. Canadian author of the best-seller ‘Medical Mafia’.

“Crib death” was so infrequent in the pre-vaccination era that it was not even mentioned in the statistics, but it started to climb in the 1950s with the spread of mass vaccination against diseases of childhood. –Harris L.Coulter, PhD.

“These data show that DPT vaccination may be a generally unrecognised major cause of sudden infant and early childhood death, and that the risks of immunisation may outweigh its potential benefits. A need for re-evaluation and possible modification of current vaccination procedures is indicated by this study.” –William C. Torch, M.D., Director of Child Neurology, Department of Paediatrics, University of Nevada School of Medicine

“Vaccination is not necessary, not useful, does not protect. There are twice as many casualties from vaccination as from AIDS.” –Dr. Gerhard Buchwald, West Germany, specialist of internal diseases and participant in about 150 trials of vaccination victims.

“The public is surely entitled to convincing proof, beyond all reasonable doubt, that artificial immunisation is in fact a safe and effective procedure, in no way injurious to health, and that the threat of the corresponding natural diseases remain sufficiently clear and urgent to warrant mass inoculation of everyone, even against their will if necessary. Unfortunately, such proof has never been given.” –Richard Moskowitz, M.D., Journal of the American Institute of Homeopathy, March 1983 (76:7)

“Vaccination is expensive and represents a cost of one billion dollars annually. It therefore benefits the industry; most notably, the multinational manufacturers. One sells the vaccines. The other then provides the arsenal of medications to respond to the numerous complications that follow. Their profits increase while our expenses go through the roof. We have simply had it up to here and are ready to accept the unacceptable, such as socialised medicine in the United States, for example.” –Dr Lanctot MD

In the May 24, 1996, New Zealand Medical Journal, J. Barthelow Classen, MD, a former researcher at the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the founder and CEO of Classen Immunotherapies in Baltimore, reported that juvenile diabetes increased 60 per cent following a massive hepatitis B vaccination campaign for babies six weeks or older in New Zealand from 1988 to 1991. In the October 22, 1997, Infectious Diseases in Clinical Practice, Classen showed that Finland’s incidence of diabetes increased 147 per cent in children under five after three new vaccines were introduced in the 1970s, and that diabetes increased 40 per cent in children aged 5 to 9 after the addition of the MMR and Hib vaccines in the 1980s. He concluded that “the rise in IDDM [juvenile onset diabetes] in the different age groups correlated with the number of vaccines given.”

Yet some parents and doctors, concerned about the future, are looking beyond the present:

 “What we forget is that millions of years of evolution have taken place on this planet, and up until the last 100 years, humans have lived in relative harmony with microbes. Yes, there have been epidemic infectious diseases in history, but they have always resolved themselves. I don’t think there is any real appreciation for what we may be doing by using so many vaccines to try to eradicate so many organisms. If we stay the present course, will mankind be free from infectious disease but crippled by chronic disease? Will eradication of feared diseases, such as AIDS, through mass vaccination be one of man’s greatest triumphs or will we live in fear of deadly mutations of microbes that have outsmarted man’s attempt to eradicate them? We may look back at the crossroads we are at today and wish we had decided to make peace with nature instead of trying to dominate it.” –Richard Moscowitz, MD


The Vaccination Debate Continues – What About Autism?

When pondering the question of whether or not to vaccinate their children, parents have cause to tear their hair out. Search the internet for some enlightenment on the subject and you will find much opinion, from lay persons and experts alike, on either side of the discussion. But what happens when two sides, one wanting to prevent autism and one wanting to prevent childhood diseases through vaccination – collide? Who is right?

In 1998, a study led by Dr. Andrew Wakefield was published in the prestigious British medical journal, The Lancet. Based on just twelve children with supposedly autism-like disorders, the study purported to establish a link between the mumps-measles-rubella (MMR) vaccine and autism. The offending substance in the vaccine was thimerosal, a mercury-based preservative believed to contribute to the development of autism and other brain disorders. Frightened parents rejected the vaccine in droves and measles made a comeback in the UK and elsewhere. Consider that nearly 90 percent of children receive vaccines at 15 months, the same time that many cases of autism are diagnosed. If autistic children are diagnosed soon after receiving vaccinations, parents may suspect a causal relationship. In 2004, however, ten of the Wakefield study’s co-authors rejected its conclusions and last year the study was retracted.

In the years following Wakefield’s findings, desperate parents of autistic children pinned blame on vaccinations based on science which turned out to be a fraud. An entire alternative industry, built around discrediting vaccinations and peddling questionable “cures” for autism has gained massive credibility with the public. High-profile figures such as Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., Jim Carrey and Jenny McCarthy have opposed vaccinations based on alleged government cover-ups and questions about profit motives behind vaccine safety studies.

As many as 125,000 children born in the US in the late 90’s may not have received the MMR vaccine because of bad press. The idea behind mandatory vaccinations of children is to induce herd (or community) immunity in hopes that vaccination of a significant portion of a population will provide protection for individuals who have not developed immunity. Only a small fraction of the population (or herd) can be left unvaccinated for this method to be effective, so most states require vaccinations before children enter school.

According to Dr. Darshak Sanghavi of the University of Massachusetts Medical School, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) reviewed dozens of studies related to vaccines and autism and concluded that “evidence favors rejection of a causal relationship between thimerosal-containing vaccines and autism.” The IOM is the esteemed advisor to the federal government on matters of public health, so as far as mainstream scientists are concerned, the vaccine-autism question is settled. The debunking of the Wakefield study simply adds weight to their conclusion.

Despite the back-and-forth of the controversy there are many parents, like Jenny McCarthy, who observed changes in their children following administration of the MMR vaccine and concluded the vaccine was to blame for the diagnoses of autism that followed.  Knowing that, left to their own devices, parents may question vaccinating their children in the absence of a disease threat and skip the shots, the United States decided in the favor of greater good and not individual rights, making vaccinations compulsory for admission to public schools and day-care centers. As a result, vaccination rates in the United States are higher than ever. About 80 percent nationwide are fully immunized – resulting in some of the world’s lowest rates of devastating but preventable infections.

In Britain, vaccination is optional, and MMR immunization rates fell to 80 percent overall after the Wakefield report and 62 percent in parts of London. According to the journal Science, cases of measles doubled. Since 1987, Japanese parents have made the decision whether to vaccinate their children. Many don’t, and now more than 100,000 cases of measles occur each year, with an estimated 50 to 100 deaths. Even if children survive, infection can result in deafness, seizures and mental disorders.

If I had a child with autism, I, too, might be inclined to believe that a foreign substance – maybe a vaccine – caused it. I might also seek a place to lay the blame so I could regain some sense of hope and control. If I was a parent, before vaccinating my child I would familiarize myself with my state’s policies and consider the scheduling of the vaccinations, as yet an unresolved question in the autism debate. Still, the overwhelming scientific evidence favors the efficacy of the MMR vaccine and allowing parents to decide against vaccination may harm herd immunity. So the question of personal freedom, in other words, may not be the important one when contemplating MMR vaccinations for our children.

The Great Vaccination Debate

In 1952 Dr. Jonas Salk developed the Inactivated Polio Vaccine, leading to eradication of the dreaded disease that had plagued the US for four decades. A polio survivor, Mark Sauer, explained the constant fear of the epidemic: “It was the robber of hope for a generation, several generations of children.  There were diseases that were more devastating, affecting more children, more deadly than polio. But polio left kids cripples, and that was an image that this big strong postwar country simply couldn’t abide… the image of a child in an iron lung is about as tearful and wrenching as we could imagine at that time, and any time certainly in this century. There were many other diseases that were bad for America, but polio broke its heart.

It is no wonder, then, that when Salk developed a safe and effective polio vaccine the country erupted in jubilant celebration. As the United States eradicated the last of the feared childhood diseases, the vaccine ushered in a new era when, wrote historian Jane S. Smith, Americans came to view “health as a birthright.”

From a 21st century perspective, it’s difficult to comprehend the enormous toll infectious diseases exacted on the population. In the 1950’s a doorway opened to miracle vaccines and antibiotics and a brave new world of medical science which seemed to know no limits. So in the sixties, when kids lined up for vaccinations, most would avoid the devastating illnesses that had ravaged the friends and families of their forebears: rabies, typhoid, cholera, plague, measles, pertussis, diphtheria, mumps, rubella, influenza and polio.

Today kids are still lining up for vaccinations – too many, some say. The climate surrounding the science of vaccines is one of suspicion over the morality, ethics, effectiveness and safety of their use. The medical and scientific establishment insists the benefits of preventing suffering and death from infectious diseases outweigh rare adverse effects of immunization. But since vaccination began in the late 18th century, opponents have claimed that vaccines do not work, that they are or may be dangerous, that individuals should rely on personal hygiene instead, or that mandatory vaccinations violate individual rights or religious principles. These arguments have succeeded in reducing vaccination rates in certain communities, leading to increased outbreaks of preventable, and sometimes fatal childhood illnesses.

The controversy over the increasing incidence of autism in this country and its possible link to childhood immunizations is well known. So far, no consensus has been reached and the debate continues. But a new reason to worry about vaccines surfaced last month with the release of two Cochrane Collaboration studies on the benefits of influenza vaccines. The studies support what earlier evidence has shown: there’s no evidence flu shots work effectively, especially in reducing flu-related deaths among the elderly. In addition, researchers said they found no plausible substantiation that flu vaccine prevented death or hospitalization from flu-related complications and only marginally reduced the number of days of lost work attributed to the illness. As the Cochrane Collaboration is an international, non-profit organization whose analyses are widely acknowledged as constituting the highest level of scrutiny of the scientific evidence available, what are we, as consumers, to think when it comes to vaccines?

There are many reasons for the public’s waning confidence in the pharmaceutical industry, like an increasing numbers of drug recalls, injuries linked to prescription drugs, billions of dollars poured into drug advertising and lobbying efforts, higher drug prices in the US than in other countries and the Medicare Part D legislation that benefitted drug manufacturers over consumers. Authors of the Cochrane studies stated that the only ones showing benefit were industry-funded and that the industry-funded studies were more likely to be published in the most prestigious journals, a finding that suggests drug companies knowingly foisted ineffective vaccines on the public for profit. Big money has done much to erode the trust we once had in our drug industry. Drug companies are, after all, corporations whose first obligation is to the shareholders, and to the bottom line. It’s difficult not to yearn for the good-old-days of the 50’s when doctors were our heroes and wonder drugs promised to defeat any and all new medical threats. In light of this latest drug industry scandal, one question arises: will manipulation and exploitation always be the by-products of our for-profit healthcare system?


TV Drug Ads – Snake Oil or Good Medicine?

No one I know likes television ads for prescription drugs. They’re annoying at best and depressing at worst; long lists of possible side effects seem worse than the miserable conditions they are prescribed for. One thing is certain: the ads are growing in number and some say in influence, as well. In 1993, 39% of us said that we had seen at least one prescription drug ad. By 2000, 91% of us said this. It’s no coincidence that in 1994, a mere $36 million was spent on TV ads, but by 2000, spending for TV advertising reached nearly $1.6 billion.

The debate about advertising prescription drugs on TV rages on, emotionally and economically charged. Supporters of the ads say they educate the public and improve the quality of care by encouraging people with certain medical problems to seek help. Detractors say the ads cause patients to pressure doctors for specific drugs, mostly brand-name expensive ones, and doctors give in even when the medication is unnecessary or unnecessarily risky.

According to CBS news, researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health say there is no evidence available to prove that patients are getting inappropriate drugs as a result of the advertising. Yet Dr. Sidney Wolfe of the Public Citizen Health Research Group said, “There is evidence that many drug advertisements are not balanced or accurate.” The Food and Drug Administration, incidentally, doesn’t police the ads; it doesn’t have the staff.

Despite the controversy, those of us who watch the ads know we’re targeted for a reason: TV ads work. If they didn’t, pharmaceutical companies wouldn’t continue to increase their budgets for them. Prescription drug ads probably do what all TV ads do – convince us to buy things we don’t need. Drug companies say that these ads don’t replace the physician-patient relationship and that their purpose instead is to encourage communication between patient and physician. Do pharmaceutical companies, through their commercials, promote medical conditions? Or do they educate consumers about conditions and send them to their doctors, thus performing a much needed service? There is no general consensus and yet every developed country in the world, save the United States and New Zealand, prohibits direct-to-consumer pharmaceutical advertising.

Like live theatre, an audience comes to the world of the TV program and suspends belief in its artificiality. We step into that world for a while and, through identification with the characters, become part of it. Drug commercials do not portray the painful, life -shattering realities of serious illness. Instead, they offer us the answer to all our woes in the form of a pill. Take the pill and life will resemble the world of the TV ad in which happy couples populate beautiful landscapes while watching the sun set on their problems.

Since drug companies receive taxpayer subsidies, their marketing efforts would ring more true if we could believe they really have our best interests in mind. But since alternatives to drug therapy, such as lifestyle changes or preventative care, are left out of the picture, drug companies seem to be serving their own best interests by advertising on television. As for any product served up for our consumption in nothing more than a pretty package, let the buyer beware.