BY CHERYL SLAVIN
A recent outbreak of measles that started in California has placed a spotlight on parents who choose not to vaccinate their children against a host of infectious diseases ranging from measles to hepatitis B. Although there does not appear to be any cases of the disease currently in Rockland County, there is still a growing number of parents who question the wisdom of vaccinating their children, while there is also a growing number who question the right of parents to refuse.
As of March 17 there have been 144 recorded cases of measles originating from the outbreak linked to an infected person visiting Disneyland. A recent study at Boston Children’s Hospital estimates that the vaccination rate in the areas most affected by this recent outbreak are between 50 and 86 percent. The general medical establishment recommends a vaccination rate of over 95 percent to induce what is termed “herd immunity,” considered the most effective means of eradicating the possibility of infection through exposure.
However, despite concerns over continuing spread of dangerous infectious diseases, a growing group of parents and some health care workers believe that vaccination can be just as dangerous, if not more, to the wellbeing of their children. A 1998 study published in the medical journal The Lancet purported to link the rise in cases of autism among children to the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine. Although the journal subsequently retracted that study in 2010, many parents of children who have tested on the autism spectrum still believe that there is a link.
It is acknowledged that there can be side effects or injury associated with vaccines. The worst include swelling in the brain, seizures and anaphylactic shock. The National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program has distributed about $2 billion to around 3,000 claimants since 1988.
“We just don’t have the science to really know for sure what the effect vaccination has on the health of kids,” says Rocklander Mary Holland, NYU law professor and board member for the Elizabeth Birt Center for Autism Law and Advocacy. “We need real data, conversations, to understand the connections.” She claims it is “plausible” that the rise in immune and neurological disorders such as asthma, allergies, autism and ADHD could be connected to standard immunization procedures.
Holland is an attorney activist who has heavily advocated for “pro-choice” and informed consent for parents before deciding to immunize their children. Her work in the human rights arena led to her belief in the absolute global right to “bodily integrity,” including that of parents’ responsibility for their children. She is also the parent of a child with autism which she believes was vaccine injury related. Her son attends the Otto Specht School in Chestnut Ridge; as a result, they currently reside part time at the Fellowship Community, although she hopes to eventually make a permanent move.
“Vaccines are defined as ‘unavoidably unsafe products,” she states, yet, parents do not see that language anywhere on the federally mandated vaccination fact sheets they must receive before any vaccination is administered. Moreover, she asserts, the idea of “herd immunity” is a myth. She contends that outbreaks such as that in California have more to do with the natural ebbs and flows of infectious outbreaks, as well as hygiene and nutrition, than they do with the level of immunization within a community.
The term “unavoidably unsafe,” however, can be misleading. According to numerous law dictionaries and definition sites, it does not mean “inherently dangerous,” or otherwise threatening. Rather, it refers to the legal concept, developed for product liability law, that there are some products that no matter how well they are designed or manufactured, there are some risks associated with their use. Not all states even define vaccines as unavoidably unsafe; however, all hold that the benefits of unavoidably unsafe products will heavily outweigh the risks.
Still, Holland advocates that vaccination education should be improved, and that parents must be given the opportunity to adequately weigh those risks. She asserts that the state oversteps its authority by mandating immunization for admission to school with little room for exemptions, and that parents should have the absolute right to have final say over what goes into their child’s body. But as long as the vaccine industry is a multi-billion dollar a year business that the government is unwilling to cross, she says, that won’t happen.
The majority position still adheres to the need for herd immunity. The global success in eradicating polio and severely limiting small pox appears to support the argument for universal immunization against dangerous infectious diseases.
“We still need a counter-narrative,” says Holland. “There is so much we have yet to learn.”
The hotly charged issue has attracted thousands of supporters to Holland’s approach as well as vilifiers who see her as a lead voice of the so-called “anti-vaccine” movement, which some claim is really a form of “anti-science.” This issue looks to become only hotter in the coming months and years.