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Story published at on Sunday, July 06, 2008
Last modified on Sunday, July 6, 2008 12:19 AM MDT
Fear of the needle
State agencies try to dispel immunization concerns
By Laurie Welch
Staff writer
Statistics show serious side effects from immunizations rarely occur, but the controversy around vaccine safety continues to boil - leaving many parents confused and sometimes opting out of shots that health officials say protect against devastating diseases still commonplace around the world.

"Statistics don't mean a thing if it's your child," said Angie Vasquez of Heyburn, who still feels the anguish of her baby daughter Stephani's death 10 years ago after a routine vaccination.

"I want to make the public aware of the dangers of vaccines," Vasquez said. "I want to let parents know both sides before making the decision. Most people trust their physicians and if they tell them it's the right thing to do, they'll do it. But, when it's your child it's your choice."

Stephani was Vasquez's third child and healthy from the start. When she was 2 months old, she received a reminder in the mail for a well-baby check that included a vaccination for DPT/Hib.

Five days after the shot, Stephani was cranky and constantly crying. When the baby slept through the night without feeding, Vasquez let her sleep thinking the baby was exhausted. When Vasquez awoke at 6 a.m. to feed Stephani, she was ice cold and pure white like a little porcelain doll.

"I didn't know vaccines could do that. I thought vaccines protected your baby," Vasquez said.

The autopsy performed on Stephani showed she died from Haemophilus influenza Type b or Hib, one of the diseases she was vaccinated against several days earlier.

Without answers, Vasquez started digging and doing research. She reported her daughter's death on the Center for Disease Control and Prevention's Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System and found the vaccine lot number her daughter had been given had been reported to VAERS 34 times and listed as causing another death.

Vasquez retained a lawyer, Curtis Webb of Twin Falls to represent her and they filed a claim with the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program and traveled to Boston for the hearing. Vasquez was offered a settlement choice of $250,000 and a gag order on the case or $125,000 and no gag order. She chose the latter.

South Central Public Health District Nurse and Immunization Coordinator, Lisa Klamm said although the risks of a serious problem occurring after a vaccine is rare, anything foreign introduced into the body may cause a bad reaction in certain individuals, including over-the-counter medicines, herbal or natural remedies.

But, at least vaccines have undergone stringent testing and the benefits and risks are known and the devastation that the diseases they prevent are still a very real threat, Klamm said.

"Ask someone who is 60, 70 or 80 years-old and they will tell you what measles and mumps are really like or the devastating effects of rubella when you are pregnant. I guarantee you will have a handicapped child," Klamm said.

Burley resident Nancy Boswell, now 65, was 4 when she contracted polio. The disease affected both her arms and her legs and she spent the following two years in a convalescent home in Boise separated from her family.

"I was one of the lucky ones, I don't have a lot of recall of the pain," Boswell said. For many years she walked with a brace on her left leg and today is confined to a wheelchair.

"My leg is like a limp rag," she said. "It has feeling in it but the disease destroys the muscles."

Boswell said even though she had the disease, she is still vulnerable to contracting it again and is regularly vaccinated against it.

"These are not just some little kids' diseases," Boswell said.

Vasquez said she believes many of the diseases the CDC is credited with eradicating through its vaccination programs were actually on the decline anyway.

"They have a natural cycle," she says. "They had already run their course and were on the decline."

Klamm said when vaccines were invented death rates decreased dramatically - and it wasn't because people learned to wash their hands or take antibiotics.

Although, diseases do run in a cycles they are never completely eradicated and an active case can always be found somewhere in the world, Klamm said.

"They are just a plane ride away. If you want to die of measles," Klamm said, "go to Africa." Measles kill more people in Africa than tuberculosis, AIDS and malaria combined, she said.

"If we don't open our eyes and look at the studies, history will repeat itself with these diseases," Klamm said.

South Central Public Health Epidemiologist Manager Cheryle Becker said 77 measles cases have been reported to the CDC in 2008 and 76 of those were un-immunized people or people who lacked documentation of vaccination. There have been six outbreaks around the nation this year including the latest cases in Washington.

For un-immunized people who contract some of these diseases as adults, the effects and mortality may be even more severe.

While adults account for only 5 percent of the chickenpox cases, they account for 35 percent of the deaths from the disease.

Klamm said she thinks there is a dangerous trend for parents to listen to their doctor and then decide what treatments they want to pursue.

Often parents are finding health information on the Internet, which means the reliability of the source is often questionable.

"A lot of the information out there is just inaccurate," she says.

Klamm said some families rely on the "herd immunity" theory that reasons if the majority of the people in a community are already immunized there is no need to immunize their children and risk a bad reaction.

Some parents still say they do not want to immunize their children because they heard the measles, mumps and rubella vaccination causes autism from the thiomersal, which is a type of mercury. Klamm said thiomersal, which was commonly used as a preservative in some vaccines was never in the MMR vaccine. In 2001, it was taken out of all childhood vaccinations and today remains only in the adult dosage of the influenza vaccine.

"So in all these kids under 8 years-old, what is causing their autism," Klamm said. "I would never deny that autism is awful, it is, but so is cancer. Do we always have to have something to blame? Vaccines aren't perfect, but neither is human life. People take these chances because they haven't seen the diseases."

Parents also worry that their child's immune system may be compromised by giving too many shots or too many at once, Klamm said.

In June, a federal advisory panel endorsed two new combination vaccines to reduce the number of needle sticks for young children. A four-in-one shot to protect against diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis and polio that is given once to preschool-aged children was approved along with a five-in-one shot for diptheria, tetanus, pertussis, polio and Haemophilus influenza type b. Youngsters get four does by age 2. The combination shots do not change the recommended vaccine schedules they just reduce the number of needle pokes for the child.

Klamm said even though the number of vaccinations has increased over the past 100 years the number of immunologic challenges contained in vaccines has actually decreased.

South Central Public Health District Division Director of Communicable Diseases Tom Machala said the state recommends a child receive 13 immunizations by the age of 5. But since some vaccines require multiple doses in a child's life, the number of needle sticks can be higher than 13.

The smallpox vaccine contained about 200 viral proteins and today the recommended vaccines combined contain less than 130.

Klamm also said the vaccine viruses are so disabled that they can not weaken the immune system and vaccinated children are not at greater risk of other infections than unvaccinated children.

Vasquez said she is not so sure and thinks the CDC's motives are not so pure.

"It's all about money," Vasquez said. "It's not about health, there's a lot of money behind vaccinations. Can you ever trust anyone who's on the payroll to tell you the truth?"

Vasquez said her two older children received all their vaccinations but her two children born after Stephani's death were not vaccinated.

"Their learning skills are better and they don't get sick as much," she says.

But, for un-immunized children, the questions may extend past whether or not they will get a disease to whether or not they will be allowed to attend school.

Machala said although laws vary nationwide, in Idaho each school district determines what types of immunization exemptions to allow, which can range from medical to religious or philosophical.

Vasquez said she has made it a priority in her life to educate and advocate for immunization choice for parents. She knows the risks of not immunizing her children and is willing to take the chance.

"I'm not saying don't vaccinate, I'm just saying educate yourself before you do," Vasquez said.

"If they get one of the diseases you at least get a chance to take care of them so they can get better. If they have a bad reaction to a vaccination, it's irreversible." Vasquez said.

"All I can say to the parents who look down on me for not vaccinating my other children, is at least you get to still hold yours, I have to go to the cemetery to visit mine."