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The immune system is still the best defense we have against infectious disease. Antibiotics and other antimicrobial drugs can help, but there's no substitute for what our white blood cells can do. For over two centuries, we've been giving our immune systems a head start on the germs with vaccines. So I was curious about what Dr. Paul A. Offit had to say in his new book, “Deadly Choices: How the Anti-vaccine Movement Threatens Us All”.
The title of the book implies a strong bias in favor of vaccines, but Offit also reported the history of vaccine safety issues. Some examples are:
1. A yellow fever vaccine infected 300,000 soldiers with hepatitis in the early 1940's, and 62 died. The problem was attributed to the human serum used to stabilize the vaccine; some of the blood donors had hepatitis.
2. A tuberculosis vaccine killed 72 babies in Germany in 1929, due to a manufacturing error.
3. When the Salk vaccine for polio was first introduced, one manufacturer (Cutter Laboratories) failed to fully inactivate the virus. As a result, 120,000 children received live polio virus in the vaccine; 70,000 suffered mild polio symptoms, 200 were permanently paralyzed, and 10 died.
4. An early version of rotavirus vaccine caused a serious condition called intussusception in one case per 10,000 vaccine recipients. It was removed from the market in 1999 and later replaced by a safer vaccine.
On the other side of the issue, Offit reported that infectious diseases killed or disabled thousands of children in the days before vaccines. In England, the anti-vaccine movement of the 1970's caused whooping cough vaccinations to drop to 31 percent; as a result, over 100,000 children came down with the infection, 5,000 were hospitalized, and 600 died.
The anti-vaccine movement has claimed the pertussis vaccine causes brain damage, and the MMR vaccine cause autism. Offit reported strong scientific evidence that these are not true. In addition, he offers overwhelming evidence that we are not able to prevent the spread of serious childhood diseases by sanitation measures alone. Without vaccines, we can be sure to see more death and disability from infection.