Pediatrician Jeanette Wilkins says she has a "plausible" theory to show why the DPT vaccine can cause permanent brain damage. According to her theory, which she bases on a review of DPT studies, children respond differently to the vaccine and can become fully immunized against pertussis at different ages.
At 2 months, she says, some infants have inherited enough pertussis antibodies from their mothers that the vaccine triggers an immune-system response to fight off the pertussis infection. Other children become fully immunized (able to fight off an infection) at 4 or 6 months or even later. Thus, subsequent injections of the potent vaccine in hypersensitive children may cause allergic responses, Wilkins says. Hypersensitive children can be ones with a history of seizure disorders or some neurological weakness. These children could suffer permanent brain damage if vaccine bacteria leave the muscle where it is injected and circulate in the bloodstream, she says.
Wilkins advocates starting DPT vaccinations at age 3 months to give the baby longer to lose the mother's antibodies. She also suggests a skin test after each immunization to check the child's ability to respond to the bacteria. Children who show sensitivity could avoid further shots, she says, to lessen risk of allergic reaction.
"Minimizing risks will require an individualization of doses rather than the standard series of shots," she says.
Wilkins, who has had several studies and letters on her theory published, says the Institute of Medicine panel did not address her theory in its report.
But Pennsylvania pediatrician Richard Johnston, who served on the panel, called Wilkins' ideas helpful: "We spent a lot of time going back and looking at her material. What she has is a hypothesis. It's a good theory, and it would be good to do research on. But there is no evidence that her theory is correct." Jeff Schwartz of Dissatisfied Parents Together, an organization critical of the government's vaccination policy, says research efforts like Wilkins' should be encouraged.
"I think that is a very promising approach," he says. "If we have data that the children are immunized, we shouldn't be giving them more."