Amended: Why the Vaccine Debate is a Legitimate Debate

[UPDATE:

Please note that I have conceded this point, and no longer back the arguments I made below.  I wrote this post several years ago, in 2009, based on the information that was available to me at the time.  In the years since then, I have read the summary of findings from additional studies that have been published in the meantime: studies that were conducted with the assistance of government agencies, just as I called for in this post; and these new studies appear to demonstrate conclusively that autism is not linked to vaccines.  Meanwhile, the widely cited study that pointed to such a link has been discredited.  In light of these developments, I had meant to post a follow-up to this blog entry, but haven’t had time.  So I’m adding this disclaimer to the top of this post instead.

This post is old, and the arguments it makes are outdated and no longer supported by the best available evidence.  I do still question the wisdom of giving children some 30 vaccines by the time they’re six years old, or whatever the current recommendation is.  It still sounds to me like a policy recommendation written by the drug companies, not a policy recommendation based on the best available science.   I only got something like three immunizations when I was growing up, and that seems like a more reasonable number.  But I don’t have any sound or compelling evidence that vaccines cause harm.  Ubiquitous chemicals in plastics, such as pthalates and Bisphenol A, are a much more serious health concern.

And with that, I’m dropping the subject.  The post remains online for historical purposes only.]

 

The pro-vaccine crowd has grown increasingly intolerant of the very idea of defending their position. Instead they have resorted to name-calling, accusing vaccine doubters of being “anti-science,” and lumping vaccine doubters together with Creationists as irrational and superstitious. The present harsh rhetoric of the pro-vaccine crowd in the media actually makes me even more suspicious than I might have been already.

The first time I became aware of this issue was when the Bush administration bundled a provision into the first edition of the USA PATRIOT ACT that prevented the parents of autistic children from suing vaccine manufacturer Eli Lilly over their children’s condition. That seemed odd, to say the least. I thought at the time that if the vaccines had nothing to do with autism, then the drug manufacturer should be able to recoup its defense expenses by countersuing the plaintiffs for filing frivolous lawsuits. Surely if Eli Lilly was able to legitimately win even one such case, then it should be able to prevent future cases from going to trial. And what did all this have to do with an anti-terrorism law? Clearly the administration wanted to bundle a questionable line-item into what was considered must-pass legislation.

But I was not a parent at the time, and I had other reasons for despising the Patriot Act (namely that its privacy-invading provisions were Unconstitutional) so I went on with my life and did not revisit the issue until I became a parent several years later.

Full disclosure: My wife is a medical doctor. She works at a hospital and prescribes medications on a daily basis. She delivers babies and intubates patients who require resuscitation. She also happens to have serious, legitimate doubts about the veracity of the major pharmaceutical companies regarding the safety of their products. Anyone who remembers Vioxx and Fen-Phen should understand why. The pharmaceutical industry has repeatedly demonstrated that it is more interested in profiting from selling its products than it is interested in the safety of those products for the people who use them.

The pro-vaccine crowd invariably points to studies that seem to indicate that vaccines are harmless. The problem with such studies is that they were funded by the manufacturers of the drugs in question. That is a problem because drug companies are not compelled to disclose the results of studies that don’t show their product in a positive light. In other words, to imagine a somewhat extreme example, a drug company could pay to have the same study done ten times, and in nine of those studies the drug being tested could be associated with horrifying side effects; the drug company would not be required to release those results, and could publish the one study in which no side effects were observed. That single study could well be peer reviewed and published in a scientific journal: however, being peer reviewed does not necessarily mean that the study’s conclusions are correct; it simply means the paper being published meets certain academic standards. Don’t get me wrong, the peer review process is an essential component of the advancement of science. However, just because a paper was peer reviewed does not mean that it is infallible.

The vaccine debate – and again I must insist that this is a legitimate debate and not just the hoarse shoutings of a few fringe whackos, as doubters are increasingly being portrayed in the media – the vaccine debate largely focuses on the safety of the adjutants and preservatives used in the vaccines.

Several years ago, vaccine manufacturers stopped using Thimerosal, an antiseptic preservative that contained mercury. Without admitting that injecting babies full of mercury could possibly have had an adverse effect on their health, the vaccine manufacturers phased out its use.

Modern-day vaccines use an adjutant containing a large dose of aluminum. A single dose intended for an eight pound infant contains several hundred times the amount of aluminum that the US FDA considers safe for a two hundred pound adult. Why is it irrational to question the safety of this practice? Are the FDA’s guidelines reasonable, or not?

In the same time period that common childhood vaccinations have increased from 2 or 3 shots to 20 or 30 shots, the instance of autism has dramatically increased. It is not unreasonable to ask the simple question, “Is there a correlation?” The pro-vaccine crowd explains this increase away, claiming that this is a statistical anomaly due to changes in diagnosis. If they are correct, then the incidence of autism is in fact the same as it has always been; but they have no proof for this claim.

On the other hand, I have been repeatedly presented with anecdotal evidence which seems to suggest that modern vaccines may cause severe neurological damage in some individuals or under certain circumstances. There are a number of very upset parents who assert that their children were completely normal until they received a vaccine; and that having received the vaccine the child began exhibiting symptoms of autism. What if those parents are correct in their assertion of a causal relation? The dismissive tone which pro-vaccine spokespeople take when writing off such concerns is not helpful or informative.

My first objection to the unquestioning acceptance of the pro-vaccine spokespeople is from a technical perspective. The published safety trials only test one vaccine at a time, yet in the real world the shots are almost always administered in combination. All health practitioners are aware of the potentially lethal effects of drug interactions: therefore, if vaccines are to be administered in combination, then they must be tested in combination to rule out the very real, very serious possibility of interaction effects. Such a study has yet to be conducted.

My second objection is one of quantity. How many vaccines does a newborn really need? When I was a child I got all the vaccines that were required in those days: Tetanus and MMR (measles mumps rubella). That was it. Polio inoculations had been phased out, and the twenty-some vaccine recommendation had not yet been phased in. (I did eventually get vaccinated against Hepatitis B, when I was living in Egypt and on my way to India; but I certainly did not suffer any ill consequences by not getting that shot when I was a newborn.) Many children now get more than 30 vaccinations by the time they are just six years old. Do we really think we can prevent them from ever getting sick?

My final objection is one of trust. It has become clear that drug companies routinely suppress clinical trial results that indicate that their products might not be safe. In just the last few years we have heard of antidepressants, weight loss drugs, and painkillers that were known to be unsafe by the companies that made them, but the companies suppressed the studies which showed that these drugs were unsafe and continued to market the unsafe products to an unsuspecting public and to doctors. If the drug companies engage in such practices with regards their regular pharmaceuticals, what is to inhibit them from engaging in these practices with regards to their vaccines?

The problem is that the clinical trials used to establish the safety of vaccines are all funded by the product manufacturers. The manufacturers stand to profit by proving that their product is safe. Given the industry’s known history of cherry-picking their data and only publishing favorable results, I personally view the results of such studies with a great deal of skepticism.

The question then becomes, “What would it take to convince me that vaccines are safe?”

I want to see a study funded by the government; not by the vaccine manufacturers. The study should have a very large random sample, a cohort of several thousand who are followed from birth through age ten. The study must track vaccines as they are administered in hospital situations.

In the real world, a newborn infant is immunized against Hepatitis-B within hours of birth, and by six weeks the infant receives a simultaneous vaccine cocktail of four or more shots targeting seven or more illnesses. Similar multi-vaccine cocktails are administered at close intervals until age 2 and at longer intervals throughout childhood. However, existing vaccine studies only examine the health consequences of the administration of a single vaccine.

The study I propose would have a randomly selected sample population that receives all the vaccines recommended by the CDC and the WHO, delivered in the multi-drug cocktails common in most hospitals. The study should have a control population of equal size who receive no vaccines, and a third group that receives only certain vaccinations against the two or three diseases that are statistically most likely to actually kill or cripple an individual in childhood. Children participating in the study would have their cognitive status closely examined immediately before vaccine administration, again immediately after vaccine administration, and a third time several weeks later. Children in the control groups would have their cognitive status examined at corresponding times.

If such a study were to be conducted, I would be a lot more inclined to believe its results. And if such a study showed conclusively that vaccinated children have exactly the same rate of autism and ADHD as unvaccinated children, then I would be willing to accept those results.

I am not categorically opposed to vaccines. My son has been selectively vaccinated and as he gets older we will continue to selectively vaccinate him against other risks. I am not calling vaccine proponents evil or any other name. I am simply saying that it is reasonable to raise the question; and that until the question has been answered PROPERLY, parents should continue to ask it, and to reserve the right to refuse treatment if the question has not been answered to their satisfaction.

What’s needed is to run a long-term double-blind study with a very large cohort sample population, funded by an unbiased entity. I cannot think of any truly unbiased entity, but in this country, a properly supervised agency of the Federal Government is about as close as we are going to get. That is the study that must be conducted and that is who must conduct it. Until such research is conducted and its results publicized for public scrutiny, I believe that it is only appropriate for concerned parents to continue to loudly ask the very reasonable question: How do I know that these shots are really safe for my child? Because the truth is, we don’t know, and the people who claim that we do know, are too often the very people who make their money by saying things like that.

About Jesse S. Smith

I’m just a regular guy who happens to have had a lot of interesting experiences. I believe in self-improvement, both for the individual and for society as a whole. I’m subject to strong opinions, but I’m trying to learn to be less confrontational about the way I present them.

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