Needling questions: Parents want assurance before going forward with vaccinations

Staff Writer
Columbus Parent

If Debbie Addison had it to do over again, the Bexley mother would take a different approach to vaccinating her children.

The parent of triplets would ask the pediatrician to give her children their measles, mumps and rubella vaccines in separate shots.

Addison is leery of the one-shot multi-vaccine injection because her son was diagnosed with autism shortly after receiving it. "The fact that they put them together is a huge shock to the system," Addison said. But, she acknowledges, "there's no evidence whatsoever that it made a difference in my son's life."

She's one of a growing number of parents who question the timing and amount of vaccines given to children. Addison doesn't blame the shot for causing her son's condition but she does wonder whether it played a role in his health.

Doctors report that more and more parents are coming to them with questions about the need for vaccines and possible negative side effects, although no hard data of the number of inquiries exist.

But those questions are okay, said Dennis Cunningham, an infectious disease doctor at Nationwide Children's Hospital and an associate professor of clinical pediatrics at the Ohio State University College of Medicine. "I have no problem with that," he said. "There's a reason I'm doing this and I'm more than happy to share that." When parents pose questions, doctors have opportunies to share the science behind their actions, he said.

Because of the growing concerns about vaccinations, the Ohio chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics is trying to help prepare doctors to answer parent questions, said Dr. Ryan Vogelgesang, who directs the MOBI (Maximizing Office Based Immunization) project, an effort by the Ohio AAP to increase vaccination rates in the state. "We believe that the risks of vaccinations are far out-weighed by the risk of getting the disease," he said.

Vogelgesang assures parents that vaccines don't cause developmental delays despite a widely published 1998 study that suggested

a link. The study, conducted by Dr. Andrew Wakefield and published in the medical journal, The Lancet, has been discredited, he said. "There is no data to support that," he said.

Several studies have determined that there is no relationship between autism and vaccines, agreed Lynn Dudek, the autism service manager at Easter Seals Central and Southeast Ohio. "I'm not sure why the vaccine-autism connection remains in place," she said. "The majority of the (parents of) patients I serve had an inkling (that something was wrong) before any vaccinations."

Addison gives consideration to the theory because so much about autism is unknown. Doctors and caregivers also seem to rely on anecdotal evidence - rather than science - when suggesting therapies and treatments, she said.

Still, Barbara Loe Fisher, co-founder and president of the Vaccine Information Center in Vienna, Va., and the author of three books on autism, questions whether a segment of the population is more at risk from vaccines than another. She hypothesizes that there might be children who are genetically unable to handle vaccines.

Perhaps children with allergies, eczema or a family history of autoimmune diseases are more prone to having a negative reaction to vaccinations, she said. "We're a genetically diverse population," she said. "Not everyone has the same vulnerabilities, not everyone has the same strengths." Fisher has served as a consumer representative for more than 15 years on vaccine advisory committees and has testified in state legislatures and in Congress.

Cunningham disagrees with Fisher's theory. "There's no scientific study," he said.

Fisher said her organization does not discourage parents from vaccinating their children but urges parents to ask questions and make informed decisions about vaccines. "You need to get informed and then make the decision that's best for your child," Fisher said.

When Sharon Drewry's son was diagnosed with autism, she started researching the disease and its supposed link to vaccines. She asked her doctor to hold off on future vaccines until she was convinced they were safe. Drewry eventually gave her pediatrician the green light for all vaccines except the MMR booster, which is normally given to children when they are about 5 years old.

Drewry also spread out the vaccinations over a period of time longer than doctors and the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control recommend. "I don't think vaccines by themselves cause autism," she said. But the mother of two does wonder if something in some people's genetic makeup reacts to vaccines or some other environmental condition to cause the disease.

The Springboro resident chose to skip the MMR booster because 95 percent of children receive adequate coverage from the first dose given to toddlers. The CDC estimates that 2 to 5 percent of the population does not receive adequate measles immunity after the first dose of vaccine.

Drewry would like doctors to consider the health of individual children and infants before administering vaccines. "I'd like to see more of a push to personalize vaccine schedules," she said.

Doctors and infectious disease experts have spent a great deal of time creating the vaccine schedule, Cunningham said. It's based on good science and the desire to protect children from harmful diseases, he said. "We know it works. These are nasty diseases that we are preventing. I want your child to be protected as soon as possible."

Experts also have studied whether it's safer to delay vaccinations and have concluded that it's not, added Vogelgesang. Parents asking to delay vaccinations are putting their own children - and others - at risk, he said. He speculates that parents don't realize how dangerous these diseases are. Vaccines prevent children from developing diseases that cause death, paralysis, seizures and other serious health problems. "Parents are not used to seeing severely ill children," he said. "If we let coverage rates fall, the majority of these diseases will come back quickly."

Melissa Kossler Dutton has worked as a reporter for more than a decade. She's a frequent contributor to a variety of Ohio publications. She lives in Bexley with her husband and two sons.

Why vaccinate?

More about vaccines from the American Academy of Pediatrics

What to ask

Questions to ask before vaccinating:

1. Is my child sick right now?

2. Has my child had a bad reaction to a vaccination before?

3. Does my child have a personal or family history of:

  • vaccine reactions
  • convulsions or neurological disorders
  • severe allergies
  • immune system disorders?

4. Do I know if my child is at high risk of reacting?

5. Do I know how to identify a vaccine reaction?

6. Do I know how to report a vaccine reaction?

7. Do I know the vaccine manufacturer's name and lot number?

8. Do I know that vaccines are optional?

Source: National Vaccine Information Center