Could Registry of Adverse Reactions to Vaccinations Separate Fear from Fact?

Caren Chesler | March 1, 2019 | Health Care
No parent wants to endanger their child, but anxiety about inoculations lingers despite scientific evidence to the contrary

Credit: Creative Commons
baby vaccine
Causation is one of the hardest things in science to prove. Just because there’s always traffic when you’re late doesn’t mean being late causes traffic. But when Laraine Conte’s son got his measles, mumps and rubella shot at 17 months, and four hours later his fever spiked to 105 and he began foaming at the mouth and having seizures, she says she is certain the reaction was caused by the vaccine.

“From a mother’s standpoint, I could just absolutely tell you that from the moment he began to seize and foam at the mouth, I knew that my child had just been injected with toxins and hazardous materials in his body, and that this is what was happening,” Conte said.

Her son, now 16, was diagnosed as autistic at three and has continued to have developmental delays that she also attributes to the shot. Prior to the inoculation, he was a normal, happy baby, making eye contact, hitting all his developmental milestones, she said.

“He never had these issues prior to that,” she said. “I have videotapes of him just progressing completely fine.”

Missing record for MMR

Conte says she complained to her pediatrician, who she believes should have known that her son — who was born at just 24 weeks — was too underdeveloped to have been given the normal dose of vaccine. She decided to switch doctors. When she went to pick up her children’s medical records, her son’s twin sister had the MMR recorded on her immunization record. On her son’s immunization chart, the MMR shot was not listed — nor was it recorded on her son’s medical chart when they brought him to the emergency room the night of his seizures.

“My husband took him to the emergency room, and they treated him there. They had absolutely no interest in documenting that he received his MMR that day,” Conte said.

While Conte has no doubt that her son’s developmental disabilities were caused by that vaccine, there are many — both inside and outside the medical community — who attribute that kind of thinking to paranoia and say it lacks medical proof.

Registry of adverse reactions

Cases like Conte’s prompted Republican Senator Robert Singer (R-Lakewood) to propose establishing a registry in the state Department of Health that would track any adverse reactions experienced by children under the age of 19, in the eight weeks following the administration of a vaccine. He sponsored a bill (S-2828) that requires physicians, physician assistants, advanced practice nurses, registered nurses, pharmacists, and any other professional licensed to administer vaccines, including those who provide care to a child in the emergency department of a hospital or an urgent care center, to file reports when they see an adverse reaction to a vaccine.

“There’s been a lot of questions about people concerned about inoculations, immunizations, and such. And a lot of it is not true, and some are legitimate concerns,” Singer said. “I felt this was the best way to clarify this, so people would not be afraid to have their (children) inoculated.”

He cited the recent outbreak in Ocean County, which is in his district, where there were 33 confirmed cases of measles, reportedly brought into the area by someone who had visited Israel. Singer said he was concerned that some of the people in his district had not vaccinated their children, a phenomenon that may have made the outbreak worse.

Exempted from measles vaccine

Other states have experienced recent outbreaks. Health officials have confirmed as many as 70 cases of measles in Washington State and Oregon in the past two months, prompting Washington Gov. Jay Inslee to declare a state of emergency January 19. That outbreak began in Clark County, Washington, in December, after an infected child arrived on an international flight at the Portland airport and came into contact with groups of people with low vaccination rates. State data shows that 7.9 percent of children in Clark County were exempted in the 2017-2018 school year from vaccines required for kindergarten entry, which includes the two-dose course for measles. In Oregon, that figure was 7.6 percent according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In New Jersey, by contrast, it is 2.2 percent, though that figure is up from 1.9 percent a year earlier.

Parents choosing not to vaccinate their children is a topic that hits home for Singer as his daughter, who is now 21, has had arthritis since she was three and has been on medication that compromises her immune system, making her more vulnerable in a potential outbreak.

Singer said a registry could give residents a clear understanding of just how frequently children actually suffer adverse reactions after being vaccinated. Having this registry could be a valuable tool to either debunk parents’ worst fears or reveal there’s indeed a problem.

“There’s a lot of misinformation that I think this could clear up,” he said, noting that some people fear giving their children the flu vaccine because they don’t want them to become sick. “It’s not a live vaccine, yet people say, ‘Oh yeah, I got a flu shot, and I got the flu.’ That doesn’t happen,” he said. He referred to the now infamous study in England several years ago that concluded that vaccines had given some children autism, a study that has since been debunked.

“I think it’s important (to have a registry) because a lot of people are very, very concerned about it, and this would kind of put them at ease — or if not, find information that we could then show to the CDC to say, ‘Look, there’s a problem here.’”

The medical community is almost universally in favor of vaccines, believing them to be one of the single most-important health advances of the 20th century. Before the measles vaccination program started in 1963, for instance, some 3 million to 4 million people are estimated to have gotten measles each year in the United States, according to the CDC. Since then, widespread use of the MMR vaccine has led to a greater than 99 percent reduction in measles cases compared with the pre-vaccine era, CDC officials say.

No link to autism

Moreover, studies linking vaccines to developmental delays or autism have been undermined. A study of more than 80,000 children born over a four-year period published last year in Pediatrics, for instance, showed that the prenatal Tdap vaccination (tetanus, diphtheria, acellular pertussis) was not associated with increased risk of autism spectrum-disorder in children.

“The link between vaccination and development of autism has been refuted by many rigorous scientific investigations. Unfortunately, the misconceptions still generate concerns,” said the study’s author, Hung Fu Tseng, of Kaiser Permanente’s Department of Research & Evaluation.

Indeed, there are few issues more polarizing these days than whether or not to immunize one’s children. Those who vaccinate their children fear outbreaks that may be caused by those whose children are not vaccinated. And those who fear immunization say they’ve seen firsthand how their children changed shortly after being vaccinated, from seizures to developmental lags.

One of the more controversial vaccinations is the hepatitis B shot, which is administered in the hospital shortly after a baby is born. But those skeptical of vaccines question why an infant would need to be inoculated for a disease that is only transmitted sexually or through blood, and in New Jersey, pregnant mothers are tested for hepatitis, making it unlikely the baby will get the disease from its mother.

“If she doesn’t have hepatitis B, you know the infant’s not at risk and we don’t need to be giving this particular vaccine within hours (of birth), for a disease that they are not going to be exposed to until early or late teens,” said Susan Collins, cofounder of the New Jersey Coalition for Vaccination Choice.

So why are they giving it?

‘Captive audience’ for vaccinations

“It’s a captive audience,” Collins said. Historically, the shot was given to infants while they were still in the hospital because the population most affected by hepatitis B were women who were sexually promiscuous intravenous drug users sharing needles, a population that was hard to get to go to the doctors, Collins explains. Public health officials reasoned that the best way to vaccinate those babies was to do it while the child was still in the hospital, Collins said.

“That was the emphasis, to put it down to the infant population,” Collins said.

And the list of mandatory vaccinations just keeps growing, she said. In the early ‘80s, it was just a handful. Nowadays, children must get more than 50 vaccines by the time they’re 18, she added.

“We’re really not collecting any data to know if there’s any patterns or if vaccines or medical interventions may be playing a role. So we need some mechanism in place to help start having this data,” Collins said, adding that the pharmaceutical industry, which claims vaccines are not harmful, is the largest lobbying entity in Congress and controls 70 percent of the advertising dollars across all media.

“There’s got to be some checks and balances,” she said.

While the registry could provide public health officials with valuable information, its future is uncertain. It was introduced last July and is yet to have a hearing before the Senate Health, Human Services and Senior Citizens committee — its first step in the process. The head of that committee, Sen. Joseph Vitale, a Democrat, declined repeated requests to comment on the bill’s status, though he is clearly in favor of reining in rules for obtaining a religious exemption. He’s sponsored several bills over the years that raise the bar on what is required.

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