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Vaccines and their risks


PAUL A. OFFIT'S essay recklessly simplifies a complex issue and falsely contrasts scientific data with parental bias and litigation ("At risk: vaccine," Ideas, June 3). A person in his powerful position has the responsibility to tell the full story. Otherwise he can be seen as too strong an advocate himself for poor government oversight and incomplete science while the epidemic of autism rages on.

In autism and other mysteries of human behavior, we ignore parents' observations at our peril. First, let's remember what energized, smart parents have done in other key human health topics, such as crib death and drunken driving. Second, thousands of families affected by autism and with the courage to stand behind their observations -- that their once-healthy child became suddenly ill after inoculations -- have given the science of autism a jump-start in research of genetic and environmental factors.

Parents are taking on medicine and government and keeping agencies such as the Food and Drug Administration as well as vaccine producers on their toes. In collaboration with scientists, they are organizing and funding research to explore the relationship between mercury and autism. The search for causes has gone well beyond the epidemiological studies Offit cites. He omits a growing body of more robust research on animal models and human laboratory studies.

Yes, there is risk in making a false connection between mercury and autism. But there may be greater risk in moving slowly to study possible contribution of toxins such as thimerosal to the explosion in cases of autism and other disorders.

The writer is a professor of the science of human behavior at Wheaton College.

AS I finished reading Dr. Offit's commentary on the potential detriment faced by makers of vaccines due to an impending lawsuit, I noticed part of his biography included "the co-inventor of the rotavirus vaccine currently licensed in the United States." While it is important for a voice from the medical and scientific community to speak out about the necessity of vaccinations to the well-being of our society, perhaps hearing from someone without a vested interest in the matter would lend more credibility to the argument.


AS ONE of the nation's first vaccine victims' lawyers, I know firsthand that the problems with vaccines are largely of the industry's own making.

For more than 50 years our nation's children were subjected to impure and needlessly dangerous vaccines for diphtheria, pertussis, and tetanus (DPT), because manufacturers put profits ahead of safety. It was not until a small group of lawyers took on this powerful industry that vaccine preparation was changed to a safer design so that children were protected. This is an example of where lawsuits have forced manufacturers to make products safer.

Offit wrongly contends that drug companies left the marketplace because of liability. The real reason there are fewer today is that they merged -- to increase profits.

As attorneys, we work to make sure people have a fair chance to receive justice through the legal system when they are injured by the negligence or misconduct of others -- even when it means taking on the most powerful corporations. That's what we have been doing; and that's what we'll continue to do.

The writer, an attorney at Brent Coon & Associates, represents the plaintiffs in a pending DPT liability suit.

PAUL OFFIT attempts to rewrite history when he argues that the DPT vaccine does not cause brain inflammation and permanent brain injury in some children. Two large studies conducted in the United States and Britain, in which the children studied were enrolled prior to vaccination, demonstrated otherwise.

The 1981 UCLA/FDA study published in Pediatrics compared DPT to DT vaccine and found that 1 in 875 DPT shots is followed within 48 hours by either a convulsion or collapse/shock episode. The case-controlled 1981 British National Childhood Encephalopathy Study found that the risk of brain inflammation within seven days of DPT vaccination is 1 in 110,000 DPT shots, with permanent brain damage occurring in 1 in 310,000 DPT shots. A re-analysis of the British study was validated in 1994 by the Institute of Medicine.

Offit is entitled to his own opinion but not to his own facts. We have only ourselves to blame when we believe everything he says.

Vienna, Va.
The writer is president and cofounder, National Vaccine Information Center.