First do no harm

Lawrence Solomon
National Post
May 23, 2009

Vaccines do good and they do harm. They also arouse passions among those who would see no harm. And intolerance, as seen in reactions to Oprah Winfrey and Jenny McCarthy for giving voice to vaccine skeptics.

Here’s the Vancouver Sun, in an article that focuses on celebrities raising doubts about the safety of vaccinating children: while “scientists are working around the clock to develop [vaccines], another group of people are working just as hard at promoting skepticism of vaccines … with the Internet’s unparalleled ability to spread rumours, innuendo and conspiracy theories, and with celebrities taking a leading role in the anti-vaccinationist movement, stories about the damage allegedly caused by vaccines are receiving more publicity than ever.”

Or Jonathan Adler in the conservative National Review Online: “Oprah Winfrey has decided to promote the career — and by extension, the dangerous and lunatic ravings — of professional-bimbo-turned-anti-vaccine-activist Jenny McCarthy. Set aside any culture war concerns, the promotion of McCarthy’s views at such a level is a real, tangible threat to the physical health and well-being of our children.”

Or my own National Post, in an editorial entitled “The danger of an anti-vaccine panic”: “It seems there is no brand of New Age nonsense Oprah Winfrey will not peddle on her show, but getting involved with anti-vaccination sentiment crosses a hugely important line.”

The vaccinationists have good arguments. The preponderance of scientific studies generally absolves vaccines. Where the welfare of children is involved, the state can legitimately intervene when irresponsible parents endanger their offspring. And where contagious diseases are involved, the public is entitled to protection. The vaccinationist’s bottom line: While vaccines may not be risk free, the benefit to society of controlling and potentially eradicating disease is immense compared to the miniscule risk vaccination may attach to individuals.

But the anti-vaccinationists also have good arguments. Peer-reviewed vaccination studies, because they tend to be funded by the pharmaceutical industry, are suspect. The pro-vaccine bias of government funding agencies gives short shrift to studies proposed by skeptics. Even when dissenting peer-reviewed studies do somehow get funded and published, including in prestigious scientific journals, the studies tend to be dismissed and the authors personally attacked. The anti-vaccinationist’s bottom line: You vaccinate your children on the recommendations of the medical authorities if you wish; I’ll exercise my right to choose what’s best for my child by weighing the benefits and the risks of particular vaccines.

The concern of parents did not materialize in a vacuum. By the tens of thousands, children who were healthy the day before their vaccination suffered serious adverse reactions, sometimes death, soon after their vaccination. Medical authorities don’t publicize these reactions to the general public and GPs don’t publicize them to their patients — to the contrary, they tend to discount alarm from parents of children they have vaccinated, reassuring the parents that there is no relationship between the vaccination they administered and their child’s new condition.

But parents often don’t buy it — when their children die, or behave strangely, immediately after a vaccine, they understandably wonder about a possible link. Neither do parents buy the greater good argument — that they must place their own child’s health at risk in order to protect the children of others. Finally, if vaccines are so safe, why did pharmaceutical companies seek and obtain exemptions from liability, why did governments need to establish funds to compensate victims of vaccinations-gone-bad, and why do pro-vaccine authorities dismiss their critics and act as if they have something to hide?

Consider Gardasil, Merck’s HPV vaccine, recommended for mass vaccination for girls as young as 9 (HPV is the most common sexually-transmitted infection). Before hitting the U.S. market in 2006 with the enthusiastic recommendation of governmental health authorities, Merck studied Gardasil’s side effects in only 1200 girls aged 16 and younger, and for less than two years. The girls that died or were inflicted with serious health problems during its pre-licensing clinical trials, Merck concluded, were coincidences.

By the end of 2008, U.S. victims or their parents reported some 12,000 adverse events from Gardasil, including 32 deaths, to the U.S. Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (at least 10 times as many adverse events are estimated to have gone unreported). The Centers for Disease Control, a U.S. government agency, reacting to alarm from parents of victims, published a report vindicating the drug, but without allowing critics to assess the report by releasing the raw data, or even the names of the principal investigators performing the study.

In response, the National Vaccine Information Center, a U.S. non-profit agency, compared Gardasil’s adverse events to those reported for Menactra, a vaccine administered to similar populations, and found that “Gardasil is associated with at least twice as many Emergency Room visit reports; four times more Death reports; five times more “Did Not Recover” reports; and seven times more “Disabled” reports,” plus at least four times as many Cardiac Arrest reports, six times as many Fainting reports, at least three times as many Syncope reports, at least four times as many Lupus reports, at least 15 times as many Stroke reports, at least 33 times as many Thrombosis reports and at least five times as many Vasculitis reports, among others.

These results, directly at odds with those of the Centers for Disease Control, need to be addressed. It speaks volumes to the nature of the vaccination debate that vaccinationists have not provided the courtesy of a response.

Lawrence Solomon is executive director of Urban Renaissance Institute.


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