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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Vaccines and Autism

Air Date: Week of

Vaccines are considered one of the major triumphs of modern medicine. But, as the number of inoculations children must receive increases - - so do a number of safety concerns. Some researchers worry the shots are linked to a rise in autism. From member station WBUR, Rachel Gotbaum reports.


CURWOOD: Vaccines are considered one of the major triumphs of modern medicine. Many diseases, including smallpox, polio, and measles, that once killed millions, are no longer a public health threat in the U.S., thanks largely to massive vaccination programs. But as the number of vaccines children receive these days increases, so do a number of safety concerns, especially for newborns. From member station WBUR, Rachel Gotbaum reports.

DOCTOR AND NURSE: One, two, three.

WOMAN: Big boo-boo honey. I'm sorry.

(An infant cries)

GOTBAUM: At Boston Medical Center, a mother is comforting her four-month-old daughter as a doctor and nurse give the infant a shot in each thigh.

(More crying)

GOTBAUM: Today most American children will receive as many as 21 vaccinations by the time they enter kindergarten. That's more than twice the number of injections kids received a decade ago. The shots are designed to prevent some ten diseases, including forms of meningitis, diphtheria, rubella, and, most recently, chicken pox. But last summer federal and state public health officials suspended the use of one new vaccine designed to protect against infant diarrhea, because it caused intestinal problems in about two dozen cases. Officials also recommended that the hepatitis-B vaccine no longer be given to newborns, but used later in infancy, after the Food and Drug Administration received reports of 73 deaths. The changes in policy come at a time when some parents are beginning to question the safety of vaccines.

CONVERSE: All of a sudden we were hearing this word autism.

GOTBAUM: Judy Converse traveled from Cape Cod last summer to testify before Congress on vaccine safety. She says her newborn son Ben was a healthy baby until he got a hepatitis-B vaccination.

CONVERSE: They tested all these reflexes, like they normally do. They were all there, they were all fine. He got a ten, which is a perfect score.

GOTBAUM: But when she left the hospital, Judy Converse says she noticed some changes in her son. He would scream inconsolably and fall unconscious. She brought Ben back to the hospital, but says doctors found nothing wrong with him.

CONVERSE: We were told he's just fussy, he's just colicky, how do you know, you are a first-time mom, this is normal. And it wasn't normal. It's not normal for a newborn to be having seizures, passing out, covered with rash, vomiting forcefully, diarrhea eight times a day.

GOTBAUM: When her son was four weeks old, she took him back to the hospital for his first check-up and more shots.

CONVERSE: And I said well, what's this? Well, this is the second hep-B. What do you mean, the second one? Well, the first one is when they're born. And it just dawned on me in that moment, this has to be part of the problem.

GOTBAUM: Today Ben is three years old, and doctors recently told Converse that her son has autism, a severely-handicapping brain disorder. He doesn't like being touched and often throws uncontrollable fits. A growing number of doctors, though still in the minority, say vaccines could be to blame. Doctor Bernard Rimland is director of the Autism Research Institute in San Diego. The institute has the largest registry of autism cases in the world.

RIMLAND: We're hearing, over and over again, very frequently, about kids who were perfectly normal. Then all of a sudden, they, you know, get the vaccine, and the kid starts to lose whatever speech they had. The kid loses eye contact. The kid begins to descend into autism.

GOTBAUM: Dr. Rimland says as the number of vaccines has increased, autism rates have doubled and in some cases tripled over the last decade.

RIMLAND: It's the assault of all these vaccines on the kids who have immature immune systems, that is causing the explosion in the incidence of autism.

GOTBAUM: Scientists don't fully understand what causes autism, and Rimland doesn't claim to know how vaccines can lead to the disorder. One theory blames the viruses in vaccines. Vaccines contain little bits of the diseases they're designed to fight against. Rimland suspects these viruses, although weakened, combined with chemical additives in the shots, somehow throw a young immune system into turmoil, ultimately damaging the brain.

PAYTEAR: Vaccines are not licensed in this country until safety and efficacy are proven.

GOTBAUM: Dr. George PayTear is professor of pediatrics at the Brown University School of Medicine, and the chairman of the Federal Vaccine Advisory Committee. PayTear says it's absurd to correlate the rise in vaccines with the rise in autism.

PAYTEAR: We have so many more developments in our society which could be incriminated. We have a greater number of environmental pollutants. We live in a much more stressful society. Those factors need to be evaluated. But I think simply to incriminate vaccines is indeed too simplistic.

GOTBAUM: Plus, he says, tens of millions of children worldwide have gotten shots with no problems. But some parents say they shouldn't be required to immunize their children if they're not convinced about a vaccine's safety. Debbie Bermudes runs Massachusetts Citizens for Vaccination Choice.

BERMUDES: We as parents have the responsibility to ask questions and make as best an informed decision as we can without feeling the coercion or threat that we won't get our children into school, or that we won't get our children into daycare.

GOTBAUM: But public health officials say every child must be inoculated to protect the entire community. Dr. Sean Palfry is director of the Immunization Initiative for the Massachusetts chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

PALFRY: This is like not allowing drinking and driving. This is something which we might feel is an impingement on our own personal liberty, but we're really trying to protect not only the individual but everybody around them.

GOTBAUM: About a dozen new vaccines for children are being developed, and at least one inoculation series designed to protect them against pneumonia is expected to be added to the required list next year. Meanwhile, a Congressional hearing is scheduled in April to investigate the causes of autism, including a possible link to vaccines. For Living on Earth, I'm Rachel Gotbaum in Boston.



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