A shot in the arm

Bringing our little bundles of joy to the pediatrician to get needles stuck in them that contain elements of a deadly virus might seem an odd concept. But most of us do it, and we do it over and over again. As counterintuitive as it may seem to hold them down as they scream, we go along because we’ve been schooled about the often-fatal and crippling illnesses that immunizations prevent.

Each state has a mandated table of immunizations for children. While the requirements differ from state to state, New York will only exempt from required vaccinations on the basis of medical history, including an adverse vaccine reaction experienced by a family member, or religious belief. In New York State, children are not allowed to attend public school, Head Start, or most private schools, day-care centers and camps without proof of the required number and dosages of vaccines.

Yet a highly vocal war over the safety of vaccinations continues. Much of the medical and scientific community strongly believes that failure to vaccinate children for deadly diseases puts them as well as those around them at great risk. Locally, some pediatric practices are refusing to treat young patients who have not been vaccinated. These physicians believe that government-approved vaccines have been adequately tested and pose no threat to most children.

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On the other side is the largely anecdotal evidence of millions of parents who report that their otherwise normal kids seem to have regressed into illness and mental isolation after receiving vaccinations. They believe — and there is some support for them within the scientific community — that certain toxins found in vaccines may be causing autism and other disorders like Asperger’s, ADD (attention deficit disorder) and ADHD (attention deficit, hyperactivity disorder).

Opponents further argue that vaccines, one of the most lucrative areas of the pharmaceutical industry, are often approved by individuals who are close to the industry, a conclusion supported by a congressional investigation report issued in 2000. Critics of the mandated vaccination schedule believe there is a limit to how many viruses and toxins should be introduced to the immature body of a small child.

With the national average of autism cases at one in 150 children and increasing — Minnesota now reports its number of autism cases at one in 81 children — the battle shows no signs of abating.

Some doctors insist on immunizations

Dr. Herschel R. Lessin, of the Children’s Medical Group, one of the larger pediatric practices in the area, said his practice is one that will not provide treatment to children who have not been vaccinated according to the accepted immunization schedule of New York State. “We have 20 pediatricians in our practice and we will not treat children who have not been immunized because we strongly believe that by not vaccinating your child for deadly diseases you not only put them at great risk but you put all of our children at risk,” said Lessin, a former director of the neonatal special-care unit at Vassar Brothers Medical Center in Poughkeepsie. Lessin said his practice will treat children who are on a “delayed immunization schedule” as long as the immunizations they are postponing are not among those used to prevent potentially fatal illnesses.

Strong advocates of immunizations like Lessin believe that herd immunity (the theory that it is more difficult to maintain a chain of infection when large numbers of a population are immune) is key to keeping the population free of many deadly diseases that once spread with plague-like mortality rates. They are concerned about the increasing number of parents refusing to vaccinate their children.

“If less than 95 percent of a population is immunized against a specific disease, then it can return,” said Lessin. “We’re seeing this happen now and it’s terrifying. Measles have returned in 20 states,” he said. “Hib [Haemophilus influenzae type b] has returned locally in a half-dozen states. I haven’t seen that in 20 years, and I don’t want to see it in our children.”

According to Lessin, people who choose not to vaccinate their children are “a danger to your one-month-old and a public health hazard.” While he concedes nothing is 100 percent risk-free, he believes we’re fortunate that polio and diphtheria are no longer threats.

Environmental causes?

Dr. Ken Bock, a founder of the Rhinebeck Health Center, is at the epicenter of the autism debate. The author of Healing The New Childhood Epidemics: Autism, ADHD, Asthma, and Allergies (Random House, 2007), Bock devotes much of his attention to the treatment of these illnesses and regularly lectures on the subject at medical conferences. He believes the spike in autism as well as ADHD, asthma and allergies in the 1990s had to do with the presence of mercury in the Hepatitis B and Hib vaccinations given to young babies starting in the 1990s.

Though the mercury-containing preservative Thimerosol was removed from vaccinations several years ago, it is still present in some seasonal flu vaccines recommended for pregnant women and children over the age of six months. Bock believes it’s not just the toxins in vaccines that are the culprit. Exposure to the toxins emitted from coal-burning plants; the lead from lead paint, as well as that in dust, soil and water; arsenic in non-organic chicken; and the toxins in such things as pressure-treated lumber are responsible too, he believes. He likens a child’s body to a rowboat that finally sinks after taking on too much water.

Removing Thimerosol was important, according to Bock. But studies of umbilical-cord blood have continued to show the presence of metals and other toxins routinely well above safe levels, he noted.

Emphasizing he is very conscious of the “public health concern,” Bock said he has advocated for administering vaccines “in as safe of a way as we can.” His book proposes an amended schedule for immunizations. He believes it may not be one vaccine that is to blame but the overload given to very young infants.

Said Bock, “What I tell any parent is that there are risks involved with not getting your child vaccinated at a very young age. They’re more susceptible to contracting the disease that they would have been protected against. At the same time, I believe that to achieve the optimal immune response children have a better chance if those vaccinations are limited to one per visit and not three at one time …. Everything in life is risk management, and I’m very clear that there are risks involved with whatever choices we make.”

Bock remains wary. “We’ve seen a meteoric increase in the number of children being diagnosed with autism,” he said. It used to be one in 10,000 and is now estimated at one in 150. “That’s astronomical, and epidemics are not genetic,” said Bock. “There are environmental factors at work here, and we as doctors, as parents, clinicians, researchers and as a society need to come together and figure out what is causing this epidemic, who is susceptible, and how we deal with it.”

Dr. Stephen Auerbach of the Highland-based Auerbach Family Chiropractic Center also lectures extensively on the charged issues surrounding immunizations. “I’m not opposed to anyone getting immunized,” said the chiropractor. “I’m very strongly opposed to mandatory vaccinations. I’ve never told anyone not to get vaccinated, but I don’t like [to see] people being forced to make uninformed decisions and having our children be used as guinea pigs.”

Some parents are refusing

Meanwhile, some parents are choosing not to vaccinate, choosing not to allow all the required vaccinations, requesting reduced dosages, or delaying vaccination until their children are older.

Rebecca Stacy of New Paltz is adhering to a modified immunization schedule for her children.

“I want them walking and talking before they receive many of those vaccines,” she said, “and I also want to make sure that the sulfur lining in their stomach is fully developed to be able to better handle any traces of mercury that are still being concealed in many vaccines.”

One mother of four in Hurley who asked that her name not be used is convinced that the cause of her son’s autism was the overload of vaccines he received as an infant and the traces of mercury in the vaccines. “If you look at his eyes in these pictures,” she said, pointing to several closeups of what appeared to be a healthy, normal 2-year-old, “and the one’s shortly after his vaccines, you can see the difference in his expression. It’s distant, unfocused. He was not like that prior to the vaccines.”

As for her other three children, she added, “They will not be getting that flu shot [required for the sixth grade], and I put my younger two on modified immunization schedules after my son was so dramatically affected.”

Poughkeepsie resident and parent Donna Steele is angry for opposite reasons. “What really frustrates me is that these immunizations do not work unless everyone is vaccinated,” Steele said. “I get my kids immunized, but then I find out that many of the children in school with them are not vaccinated. That puts my kids at risk. Those diseases are waiting to come back. Do we want the polio epidemic again? Measles? We have it so good we do not remember a time when child mortality rates were at 50 percent.”

Bock suggested a safer approach to vaccination would be to make sure all vaccines were free of toxins like Thimerosal, aluminum, formaldehyde, Phenol and ethylene glycol.

Lessin is adamant that there is no scientific proof that vaccinations are causing autism. “There is absolutely zero, I mean zero, research out there which concludes that there is any link between vaccinations and autism,” he said. “What we have is a celebrity-driven culture and some celebrities who are not doctors advocating against immunization, which is a real shame. I spend half my day now explaining to people how critical it is that they get their child immunized and debunking these myths.”

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