Vaccine Skepticism Grows in US

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(Oct. 2) - As the United States awaits the arrival of the H1N1 vaccine next week, growing skepticism over the overall safety and importance of vaccinations of all types is worrying health officials.

A combination of factors has led a statistically significant number of people to forgo vaccination for their children, resulting in a return of the very diseases the vaccines had helped eliminate.

"I don't trust that the pharmaceutical industry is looking out for my child's best interest," said Eileen Karpfinger, a licensed chiropractor and co-founder of the Upaya Center for Wellbeing in Alameda, Calif. She says she does not plan to have her own infant daughter vaccinated against any disease.

Karpfinger's distrust of vaccines is multi-fold, ranging from a belief that immunizations are weakening the immune systems of the general population, to an overall skepticism that the shots for diseases like H1N1 flu, measles or whooping cough have any effect whatsoever in preventing those diseases.

"There is absolutely no way of knowing whether that shot is doing what is says it is doing," Karpfinger said.

According to a Johns Hopkins University study, the number of people in the United States who share Karpfinger's misgivings about vaccines is on the rise. It finds that the number of parents who voluntarily opt out of vaccinating their children jumped from just 1.26 percent of the population in 1991 to 2.54 percent in 2004.

While nationally, those figures are still quite low, localized trends in states like California -- where some counties now report kindergarten classes in which upward of 75 percent of the children have not received vaccinations -- are heralding the return of isolated outbreaks of diseases such as measles and whooping cough.

Still, many in the anti-vaccine movement remain dead set against immunization programs.

"If vaccines work, then those who have been vaccinated have nothing to fear," said Barbara Loe Fisher, the co-founder of the National Vaccine Information Center.

Fisher's view is that government should promote immunization only "when the survival of the community is at stake." In other words, when it can be shown that death rates outpace birth rates. The H1N1 virus, for instance, would not rise to the standard to mandate government response, though diseases like Ebola and smallpox are a "different story."

In particular, Fisher is not convinced that the H1N1 virus represents as serious a threat as federal health officials claim.

"Does this particular strain of influenza warrant the amount of money we're spending and this campaign the government is waging?" she asked rhetorically. "Federal health officials are making a mistake. There's been an overreach. People don't appreciate being bullied. A lot of people are starting to stay away from doctors. There's a paradigm shift occurring."

That go-it-alone approach, in which the centralized authority of a single doctor or set of government recommendations is replaced by the myriad voices found on the Internet, is part of the focus of a forthcoming book by Thomas Goetz, titled 'The Decision Tree: Taking Control of Your Health in a New Era of Personalized Medicine.' But Goetz is wary of, as he sees it, replacing scientific rigor with anecdotes.

"These people are making their decision not to vaccinate on the very thin possibility that something might go wrong. And they are ignoring the evidence that infectious diseases, which are kept at bay, represent a much more serious threat," Goetz said, adding, "Vaccination is one of the surest things we have in science."

Statistics would seem to back up Goetz.

According to the World Health Organization, vaccination programs save an estimated 3 million lives each year. Figures from The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia show that before vaccines were developed:

-- 3,000 children died of measles every year, with 4 million infected; -- polio left 10,000 kids paralyzed every year; -- diphtheria was one of the most common causes of death among children; -- rubella, also known as German measles, caused birth defects and retardation in up to 20,000 infants each year; -- pertussis, also known as whooping cough, killed thousands of infants annually.

After a program of widespread vaccination, each one of those diseases was eradicated in the United States. In 2007, for instance, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported just 42 cases of measles.

In 2008, however, the number of measles cases more than tripled.

But if something bad happens after a person receives a vaccination, does that mean the vaccine was the cause?

Last week, a 14-year-old British girl died suddenly -- hours after receiving a vaccination for cervical cancer. Newspapers quickly picked up the story, running headlines implying the vaccine killed her.

But two days later, an autopsy revealed the cause of death was an undiagnosed tumor located in her chest. It had nothing to do with the cancer vaccine.

Dr. Paul Offit, chief of infectious diseases at The Children's Hospital, says there is no credible evidence that autism can be caused by the trace amounts of mercury found in childhood vaccine preservatives like thimerosal. Indeed, he points out that there are at least 10 studies that show just the opposite.

Why, then, has the notion that vaccinations put children at risk for autism taken hold? Offit, the author of 'Autism's False Prophets: Bad Science, Risky Medicine, and the Search for a Cure,' believes coincidence has a lot to do with it.

"The MMR [measles, mumps, rubella] vaccine happens to be given to children just at the time when these symptoms [of autism] start to become more apparent," said Offit. "Instead, parents see causation and blame the vaccine."

It remains to be seen what percentage of Americans will seek out the H1N1 vaccine once it is made available. Whether the virus -- which has sickened hundreds of thousands of people worldwide, killing approximately 3,900 -- is viewed as a significant enough threat to warrant a preemptive shot may be linked to the damage it does in the coming months.

Offit is not optimistic. "I used to say this will change when children die. Now I say, this will change when enough children die."

But for Eileen Karpfinger, the perceived risks of vaccines are not even close to being worth it.

"It's ludicrous to me that I have to put my child through this," she said of vaccines in general. "As a mother I don't find vaccines to be effective."

Meanwhile, CDC spokeswoman Arleen Porcell-Pharr is busy emphasizing that the current H1N1 vaccine, like other vaccines tested by the Food and Drug Administration, is nothing to fear.

"We expect the 2009 H1N1 influenza vaccine to have a similar safety profile as seasonal flu vaccines, which have very good safety track records," she said.

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2009-10-01 18:19:53