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A Vocal Attack on Vaccines

Media-savvy skeptics are using stories of tragedy to claim that inoculations may do more harm than good. Health officials say such ideas endanger the public. At core of controversy is question of risk, reality.


The story of Cindy Goldenberg and her dimpled son Garrett was enough to give any channel-surfing parent a jolt. As the Laguna Beach mom told it to talk show hosts, she had done what any good parent would--found the best pediatrician and ferried her son in, on schedule, for his shots.

But, beginning at about 13 months, her "perfect baby" quit looking people in the eye. He withdrew from hugs, grimaced at mild sounds, then simply stopped talking. After visiting 55 medical experts, Goldenberg learned he was descending into autism, but no one could say why.

On her own, she decided it was his rubella shot--that seemingly innocuous rite of passage--that pushed her happy child into an impenetrable shell. Now, she said, warning of its dangers is her "mission from God."

Charismatic and camera-friendly, Goldenberg has taken to the lecture and talk show circuit, reaching millions of viewers on programs from "Susan Powter" to "Caryl and Marilyn."

She is among hundreds of parents and skeptics across the country venting against vaccines. Although active since the early 1980s, these critics are no longer just chatting over the backyard fence. They are broadening their reach through public forums, TV, magazines and at least two dozen books. And they are swapping news, views and suspicions over the Internet.

Drawing on the persuasive power of personal tragedy, this scrappy movement transmits a scary message.

It especially spooks many public health officials, who fear its contagion much as they would a deadly disease. Indeed, if the ideas catch on, some warn, deadly disease will be the inevitable consequence.

Others--doctors and researchers among them--see the debate as a natural offshoot of health consumerism, opening up a domain too often controlled by the scientific community.

"It's good to bring out the truth, even if it's negative," said Malibu pediatrician Jay Gordon. "People will have more faith . . . that we're being honest with them. I believe the facts are on the side of people who support vaccinations, but I think it's a little closer call than many doctors would have you believe."

Having learned the ropes as consumer activists, vaccine critics are now a force to be reckoned with. Or at least, they have become hard to ignore. They have joined the folks in lab coats on national committees, been invited to scientific meetings and crowded the hallways of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, accompanied by children in wheelchairs.

They blast the medical establishment, the government and drug companies for bamboozling consumers into believing vaccines are safe.

"It's the same old garbage," lamented Dr. James Cherry, chief of pediatric infectious diseases at UCLA, of complaints by critics, who he claims "make [vaccines] responsible for everything from autism to stuttering."

At its core, the vaccine controversy is about the meaning of risk--that troublesome topic that scientists cast in statistics but the public often takes very personally.

"This is the thing," said Cherry, "these [vaccine critics] don't understand public health at all. It's all about their child."

The National Vaccine Information Center, founded by vaccine critics in the early 1980s, fires back with a slogan: "When it happens to you or your child, the risks are 100%."

Benefits Versus Risks

To Cherry and other researchers, the calculation is simple: Benefits of vaccines far outweigh risks. Inoculations in this century have wiped out smallpox, nearly eliminated polio and vastly reduced cases of measles, whooping cough, diphtheria and tetanus. They have saved millions of lives.

These vaccine advocates condemn critics' arguments as unscientific, inflammatory and potentially subversive to a practice that is one of modern medicine's greatest achievements.

"To have a medical intervention as effective as vaccination in preventing disease and not use it would be unconscionable," a CDC statement to doctors says.

Consider measles. The risk of dying from the disease is one in 3,000, according to the CDC. The risk of brain damage or a severe allergic reaction from the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine (MMR): one in a million.

But this is not solely a factual dispute about how risky vaccines are--it is a philosophical conflict over who should decide what is an acceptable risk. Barbara Loe Fisher, who co-founded the vaccine information center, says she sides with consumers and against the government, drug companies and what she refers to as the medical "elite."

"We believe our country ought to be producing the safest, most effective and technically advanced vaccines it is capable of producing," Fisher said.

"If [parents] want to use all vaccines, if they want to use certain vaccines, that . . . should be the right of every American citizen. We should never be forced by law to engage in any medical procedure that carries the inherent risks of injury or death."

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