| Parents Increasingly
Question Vaccine Wisdom
The posting on an Internet
Web site sounded plaintive. Marianna Toce Gerstein wondered whether
as a pregnant woman she should get a flu shot.
Although influenza vaccines are
recommended for pregnant women, she was worried because she knows
the vaccine contains a mercury-based preservative called thimerosal.
She fears it could injure her unborn child.
"Has anyone else struggled with
this?" she asked.
Gerstein's gynecologist told her
to get the vaccine but her other doctor, an internist, told her
not to take the risk with her baby's health. Gerstein is aware
of the advice from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:
Pregnant women in their second and third trimesters should get
the shot because their immune systems are suppressed.
But she does not want to blindly
follow anyone's advice.
She is not alone. A survey published
this month suggests a growing number of U.S. parents are beginning
to question either the need for vaccines for their children, or
the need to follow the recommended schedule of multiple shots
between the ages of 3 months and 3 years.
"We found that a large number of
both pediatricians and family physicians had experienced at least
one parent vaccine refusal in the last year," Dr. Gary Freed of
the University of Michigan said in a telephone interview.
The survey of nearly 1,500 doctors
found that 93 percent of pediatricians and 60 percent of family
physicians had seen at least one parent who refused a vaccine
for his or her child in the past year.
WORRIES ABOUT SIDE-EFFECTS
Writing in the January issue of
the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, Freed and colleagues
said 19 percent of doctors reported the parents feared the vaccines
could affect their babies' immune system.
Sixteen percent said the parents
wondered whether children really needed all the vaccines recommended
by the CDC.
"A growing number of parental concerns
were relating to unproven or disproven concerns about childhood
immunization such as whether mercury was harmful or the now disproven
speculation about an association between the MMR (measles, mumps
and rubella vaccine) and autism," Freed said.
The CDC is clear: Vaccines save
lives, are extremely safe and are still necessary.
For instance, measles makes as
many as 40 million people around the world sick every year and
kills 745,000, according to the World Health Organization.
"If vaccinations were stopped,
each year about 2.7 million measles deaths worldwide could be
expected," the CDC says.
In Britain a growing anti-vaccine
movement means just 84 percent of children are immunized against
measles by age 2 -- a level that leaves the population vulnerable
to an epidemic. Last year, 308 cases of measles were reported
Gerstein appreciates the benefits
of vaccines, but says no one can tell her the risk-benefit trade-off
of getting herself vaccinated against flu. Adding to the confusion
are recent Food and Drug Administration advisories that some tuna
contains high levels of mercury and that pregnant women should
limit how much they eat.
"You see signs around the doctor's
office all the time telling you not to eat (certain) fish," she
said in a telephone interview. "And at same time there is this
whole thing with thimerosal and vaccines."
Vaccine experts were confused,
too -- so much so that the Environmental Protection Agency bases
its limits for mercury exposure on what is known about damage
done by methyl mercury contamination.
Methyl mercury is the form found
in fish. But the mercury in thimerosal is ethyl mercury.
"These two molecules are very different,"
said Dr. Paul Offitt, an immunization expert at Children's Hospital
"They are just biologically very
different agents. The problem is the word mercury is at end of
both of them and there is no way that mercury ever sounds good."
But Offitt and colleagues at the
National Partnership for Immunization recently completed a review
of mercury studies and concluded that the very small dose of mercury
contained in thimerosal-preserved vaccines is cleared by the body
before it can do any damage.
"The mercury ... from thimerosal
-- it is eliminated from the body much more quickly than methyl
mercury," said Dr. Polly Sager of the NPI and a researcher at
the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
In any case thimerosal has been
removed from all childhood vaccines.
Gerstein was relieved to hear about
the group's findings but is still worried that she could not find
any details about the risks and benefits of a pregnant woman getting
a flu shot. She ended up not getting one, and plans to wash her
hands frequently and avoid situations where she may get flu.
Reference Source 89