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    Anti-vaccine delusions The Chiropractic War on Public Health

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    Voodoo medicine lives!


    December 19, 2000
    The Globe and Mail
    Metro - page A17

    All material copyright Thomson Canada Limited or its licensors. All rights reserved.

    Just a few days ago, Dr. Patricia Marchuk saw a new mother who had brought in her three-month-old baby for a routine checkup. The baby was already late for her first set of shots. "I'm not going to give them to her," proclaimed the mom. "I'm terrified of them." She had it on good authority that immunizations are dangerous, and can cause crib death, allergies, asthma, even autism and juvenile delinquency.

    Dr. Marchuk, who has a thriving family practice in small-town Ontario, wasn't surprised. She sees parents all the time who are afraid of vaccines. "They're being duped by pseudo-science," she says with a sigh. These people are neither stupid nor ignorant. On the contrary. Most of them are well-educated and determined to make the wisest possible health choices for their children.

    But these days, the scare over vaccinations and flu shots has reached a new height of hysteria. Blame the Internet. Blame the boom in alternative medicine, and the thousands of so-called doctors who argue that vaccines are risky and possibly unnecessary. You can also blame the astonishing success of mass immunization programs, which have nearly wiped out our institutional memory of what polio, diphtheria and whooping cough used to be like.

    If you're over 45, you may dimly remember the last days of polio. Maybe you knew a kid or two with withered legs and walkers. Those kids are past middle age now, and there are no more crippled kids around to bear witness to the vaccination revolution. "Parents in their 20s and 30s have never seen these diseases," says Dr. Marchuk. "They haven't seen measles deaths or pertussis whooping cough in an infant. People have forgotten what infectious disease is."

    Instead, conscientious parents can visit dozens of authoritative-looking Web sites filled with information about the suspicious links between vaccines and attention deficit disorder. There, they will read many tragic stories and will learn that adverse reactions to vaccines are vastly under-reported. They can study pamphlets with titles such as "The Dark Side of Flu Shots," which warn that flu shots contain formaldehyde and neurotoxins and might cause cancer or brain damage. Or they can visit their friendly chiropractor or naturopath, who might tell them that spinal manipulation and naturopathic remedies are much better for their babies than vaccination is.

    "They even have this counterargument that infectious diseases are good for you because they toughen the immune system," says Dr. Marchuk.

    Voodoo vaccination science is everywhere. People pass it on to their friends and neighbours, and the result is an epidemic of confusion and suspicion. Some of the brainiest people I know are not immune from the belief that mainstream science is often wrong and that conventional medical doctors are unwitting (or witting) pushers for greedy drug lords.

    Here's one typical anti-vaccine rant from a Toronto mother: "I am extremely disturbed by the myths being propagated by the medical community in their efforts to maintain the status quo and ensure that pharmaceutical companies continue to reap huge profits from toxic vaccines that pollute our bodies and actually weaken our immune systems."

    Says another mother: "Maybe we are not getting measles, maybe we are not getting mumps. But we are getting things like asthma, we're getting things like learning disabilities."

    "Young parents cannot possibly filter their way through the material," says Dr. Marchuk. "They want to do a good job, but they are so vulnerable." Rather than tell them the doctor knows best, she takes the time to walk them through the evidence and fight myth with fact. "If you take the time to educate one person, that person will educate more," she reasons. She also tries to keep up her own anti-quack crusade. When one chiropractor ran a series of ads in the local newspaper, claiming, among other things, that vaccination "is breaking the chain of natural passive immunity," she advertised back.

    The anti-vaccination lobby has had some impact. About 34,000 Canadian kids under 4 aren't vaccinated at all. Whooping cough (which kills one in 200 kids who get it) has made a comeback among the Mennonites and Hutterites of Manitoba. Big measles outbreaks have occurred in the Netherlands and parts of Canada. "The complications of measles are just what they were 40 or 50 years ago," says Dr. Marchuk. "Some people will get measles pneumonia or measles encephalitis. A few people will die from it."

    Dr. Marchuk's young mother eventually did come around. But there are many thousands more like her, consumed by worry and fear of imaginary dangers. Even though we've wiped out so many dreadful diseases, it turns out that voodoo medicine is just as virulent as ever. Too bad there's no vaccine against it.

    E-mail Margaret Wente for comments:
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