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    Experts try to counter vaccination safety fears

    Toronto Star - December 3, 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 view vaccinations as at best unnecessary and at worst a serious 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.

    They need an arsenal.

    Opponents say the shots meant to protect children from diseases ranging from mumps and measles to polio and hepatitis B actually cause an array of illnesses and conditions far more serious than those they are meant to protect against.

    The claims include: autism, asthma, attention deficit disorder, multiple sclerosis, diabetes and other auto-immune diseases.

    ''It's only a theory,'' Winnipeg chiropractor Gerry Bohemier says of the idea that immunizations work.

    ''There is no information to indicate that these vaccinations are safe, that these vaccinations are necessary or that 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,'' says Pless.

    He is patient in the face of claim after claim, but refuses to name the myth he feels is most farfetched.

    ''I guess I don't want to propagate them.''

    Pless makes no bones about what he thinks of immunization programs.

    ''Vaccines have been miracles,'' he says. But he admits 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 says.

    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 says.

    ''And we have examples of that happening in countries which 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. In Britain and Japan, scores of children died of a disease that just a few years earlier was virtually non-existent.

    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 insists.

    ''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 an organization called 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 of his own, aged 14 through 21. None has been vaccinated. All are perfectly healthy, Bohemier says.

    A key to Bohemier's theory is his belief that the immune system's production of antibodies is a limited resource. If you tax yours by producing antibodies to face an artificial threat - the dead virus in a vaccine - you may not have the ability to fight off diseases when the real ones come along.

    ''It has been shown, by many critics of vaccines, the scientists who are looking at it, 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.''

    As proof, he notes the rise of auto-immune diseases has paralleled the rise in the use of vaccines. Auto-immune disease occur when the body attacks a part of itself, such as the insulin-producing cells of the pancreas in the case of a diabetic.

    ''Where is this epidemic of allergies coming from?'' he adds. ''What are we doing to our genetics?''

    ''Yes, we've been introducing new vaccines and yes, there is a rise in diabetes and asthma in the populations,'' Pless counters.

    But two trends are only that - two trends - unless someone proves through sound scientific research that there is a link between them.

    Pless recounts that a common example taught to epidemiologists is the strange fact that the stork population in Britain rises and falls with the birth rate. ''But no one's suggesting that storks bring the babies.''

    The World Health Organization's Web site has a section devoted to misconceptions about vaccines. It gives another example to dismiss the theory that the vaccination for diphtheria, pertussis and tetanus causes sudden infant death syndrome because some of the children who die of SIDS have been recently vaccinated.

    ''You might as well say that eating bread causes car crashes, since most drivers who crash their cars could probably be shown to have eaten bread within the past 24 hours."

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