Vaccines Get New Scrutiny

Vaccinations are supersafe, but maybe not all at once, or for certain children.

Graphic: Vaccine Risks
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This larger surveillance system could also help determine whether there's a limit to the number of immunizations a baby can safely have at once. The Institute of Medicine concluded in 2002 that giving babies 20 shots against 11 diseases before age 2 did not raise the risk of juvenile diabetes (thought to be a result of an immune system in overdrive). But the IOM decided there wasn't enough evidence to prove or disprove an increased risk of allergies and asthma. Efforts are underway in Congress to fund a well-designed study comparing vaccinated kids against those who remain unvaccinated to see if there are differences in autism rates.

Avoiding immunizations altogether certainly isn't a good solution for families, because meningococcal, pertussis, and other infections could sharply rise if vaccination rates drop low enough—putting any unvaccinated child at risk. Measles cases rose recently in counties with the lowest vaccination rates. So, parents who choose not to vaccinate better hope that other parents aren't following their lead. Certain approaches, though, can help minimize risks without leaving children unprotected.

While researchers seek answers, some families are left wondering if their tragedies are vaccine-caused. Philip Tetlock, an organizational behavior professor at University of California—Berkeley's Haas School of Business, is desperately trying to determine if his 14-year-old daughter Jenny's juvenile amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (aka Lou Gehrig's disease) is a result of her Gardasil vaccination. Another young woman, Whitney Baird, 22, died in August from this disease, just 13 months after receiving Gardasil. Both were healthy before getting the shot, and the condition is extraordinarily rare, affecting just 1 in every 2 million people. The cases have been reviewed by CDC researchers who, says Iskander, "didn't feel that vaccines were the likely trigger." Yet Barbara Shapiro, an associate professor of neurology at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine who has also pored over Jenny's and Whitney's medical records, believes the cases raise red flags.

Often, parents' only recourse is to try to collect damages in the Vaccine Court, which is expected to rule on a series of autism cases any day. Tawny Buck had to fight hard to convince the court that her infant daughter Quincy's seizures, which left the now-13-year-old with severe brain damage, were caused by a reaction to the live pertussis vaccine. Currently serving in a government vaccine-safety working group, Buck, of Wasilla, Alaska, hopes her experience can help make a difference when it comes to setting research priorities for the CDC. "Vaccines are important for keeping our communities safe, but they have problems," she says. "What happened to my daughter can't be forgotten."