Immune to Reason

Hundreds of thousands of Texas children, including 250,000 newborn babies, are routinely vaccinated against hepatits B each year. Why? Good question.

On the one hand, the committee cited "biological plausibility" for a host of serious illnesses resulting from hepatitis B vaccine, including Guillain-Barre syndrome, multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis. It even warned that the vaccines appeared to cause an allergic reaction called anaphylaxis that can be fatal. On the other hand, the committee said it didn't have enough evidence to make a definite connection between the vaccines and the adverse reactions.

Last year the scientific journal Vaccine published a review of the reported adverse reactions to hepatitis B immunizations. Like the Institute of Medicine, the authors came to the conclusion that, given the available information, the benefits of hepatitis B vaccines still far outweigh the potential risks. However, the authors offered this piece of parting advice: "In view of the campaign for universal hepatitis B vaccination in some countries, the appearance or exacerbation of autoimmune disease may become frequent and should be actively sought and reported."

"This whole thing about hitting the newborns with all these shots before they get out of the hospital is really kind of frightening," says Jane Orient, an Arizona physician who is executive director of the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons. "They are not doing the studies they need to do to put some of these fears to rest or verify there really is a problem.

"There are so many unknowns that the children receiving these immunizations really are experimental subjects," Orient says. "They or their parents are not giving informed consent to this treatment, and that's supposed to be against international law under the Nuremberg protocol."

Dawn Richardson is executive director of an Austin-based group called Parents Requesting Open Vaccine Education, or PROVE. The organization is fighting expansion of the state's vaccine requirements, as well as trying to convince legislators to allow parents the right to reject the existing mandates on philosophical and religious grounds. All things being equal, she believes most parents might want to know everything there is to know before immunizing their children, especially against a disease they are at minimal risk of contracting.

"If it's a disease that's highly infectious and highly debilitating to children, we ought to have a mandate," says Richardson, who suffered adverse reactions to vaccines as a child. "But the reality is that, for the parents I've talked to, the benefits of this vaccine don't outweigh the risks. So, why is every newborn getting vaccinated?"

In late fall of 1996, 13-year-old Paul Viscontini became so ill during a family trip to Connecticut that his parents had to take him to the emergency room. The diagnosis was pancreatitis, a painful inflammation of the organ that helps the body digest food.

"This kid's been sick for nine or ten months," the doctor told Paul's mother, Joan.

"You're off by a few weeks," Joan said.
"What happened?" the doctor asked.
And Joan replied, "He got the hepatitis B vaccine."

A few weeks before Christmas 1995, the family's pediatrician told Joan that Paul should receive the shot because he played basketball and, if things should get rough, he might come in contact with someone else's blood. Joan accepted that reasoning and gave her consent for Paul to receive the three-shot regimen.

At the time, the Viscontini family, who reside in Friendswood now, lived in Holland, Pennsylvania. Paul was just a freshman in high school, but he had already established himself as one of the area's top swimmers, particularly in the endurance events. His daily training schedule included exhausting 3,000-yard workouts.

After he received his first shot, Paul came down with a bad cold. But because it was that time of year, Joan didn't think anything of it. On January 28, 1996, Paul received his second hepatitis B shot. Within hours, he was feverish, vomiting and doubled over with abdominal pain. Within days, he had lost a noticeable amount of weight, and all of a sudden he had no stamina. At swim team workouts, he could barely make it across the pool.

Joan had no idea why Paul was so sick. Neither did the doctors. No one made the connection to the vaccine, partly because Paul's younger sister had also been immunized and had suffered no ill effects.

But after Paul received the third and final hepatitis B shot on July 31, 1996, there was no doubt in Joan Viscontini's mind. She did some research and read about the illness and injury that were being blamed on the hepatitis B vaccine. At one point, a physician noted that Paul's liver was enlarged and suggested the possibility that Paul might have actually been infected with the hepatitis B virus.

"I said, 'Doesn't all this give you guys a clue that something is happening with that shot?' " Joan recalls. "They didn't want to hear it. They said that very, very few people have bad reactions. It was extremely rare, they said."

By the time classes started that fall, Paul was so sick he could barely make it through the school day. When an outbreak of the flu occurred, his teachers were particularly worried about Paul and sent him home. As his condition worsened, Paul's parents became frantic. One day, his father, Sal, was so frustrated and upset by his son's weight loss that he threatened to have Paul hospitalized where they could pour liquefied food down his throat.

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