Most parents don't think twice about immunizing their children. Yet one-third of the four million babies born in this country every year are not vaccinated by age two. A couple of years ago, a New York couple was even accused of child neglect because they refused a measles shot for their three year old (1). Is failure to vaccinate children due to ignorance, poverty, or worse yet, abuse, as the government claims? Perhaps, in some cases. But many parents are consciously choosing to forgo or modify how immunizations are given to their children based on research and concern.
These sentiments smack in the face of President Clinton's Childhood Immunization Initiative--a mission to vaccinate 90 percent of all children against six ailments by 1996. Besides offering free shots to those who qualify, tracking systems exist in various states (including California) to shadow both immunized and non-immunized children (1).
There was a time when childhood illnesses were deadly. The introduction of vaccinations beginning with smallpox in 1902 (2) brought a sigh of relief to many parents' lips. Health caregivers watched as the incidence of polio and other ailments declined, and once frequent diseases became rare.
Vaccines, intended to protect the individual and community against diphtheria, pertussis (whooping cough), tetanus (lock jaw), polio, measles, mumps, rubella (German measles), Haemophilus influenzae type b, and hepatitis B, are hailed by many as one of the most efficacious and safest therapies available. Vaccines defend children against contagious bugs, when parents cannot (3). Rashes, fever or sore arms, and the occasional severe reaction caused by shots are viewed as small prices to pay for promised immunity (4).
Most states require all vaccines be given to children in order to attend school and, frequently, daycare. The Supreme Court ruled compulsory vaccinations to be constitutional (1). All states offer exemptions to this requirement based on medical reasons (requiring a doctor's signature), religious beliefs, personal or philosophical judgment. However, these exemptions are not guaranteed. During the last four years, at least three states lost their philosophical exemption. A resolution opposing religious exemptions was passed by the American Medical Association because this exemption violates standard medical practice (5). Immunizations are not mandatory in every country. Switzerland, the Netherlands, England, Ireland, Germany, Austria and Spain offer vaccines as an option not a law (6).
Don't Vaccinate my Child!
"The greatest threat of childhood diseases lies in the dangerous and ineffectual efforts made to prevent them through mass immunization" was the opinion of the late Robert Mendelsohn, MD (7). While pushing for higher immunization rates, the US government has set up the Vaccine Injury Compensation Program, funded by a federal tax applied to each vaccine. As of February 1995, VICP has paid over half a billion dollars for vaccine related injuries and deaths. The federal government admits that less than 10 percent of doctors even report vaccine problems (8). So without adequate data, do we really know if the benefits of immunization outweigh its risks?
Opponents feel there are too many unanswered questions surrounding vaccines to warrant blanket use. Even the word "immunization" is frowned upon as it implies support of the immune system when in fact the opposite may be true (6). Some are concerned that vaccines may ignite AIDS infections, cause allergies, sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) and immune related conditions such as multiple sclerosis later in life. Of the 145 children who died of SIDS or crib death in Los Angeles County from 1979 to 1980, more than one-third had received a DPT shot less than a month earlier. The investigators that reported this acknowledged these SIDS cases were "significantly more than expected" (9).