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Blocking the shots

"Blocking the shots" Continued...

Issue: "Reassessing the genome," Oct. 6, 2012

Rebecca Capuano, who writes for a group blog at TheHomeSchoolMom.com and homeschools her two girls (ages 4 and 7) in Roanoke, Va., said she has done her own research and concluded there are too many risks associated with vaccination: "That is the case for me while my children are young—I'd say under 12." When her children are older, she'll take a second look at "each one of the vaccines," but in the meantime, Capuano wonders why her babies should be jabbed for diseases they're unlikely to get, like sexually transmitted hepatitis B.

When Steven David Horwich's two children attended a private school in California, their family doctor—who believed there was "no scientific proof" that vaccines were effective—wrote notes to the school saying the children had been immunized, although they had not. Horwich, a playwright, educator, and author of Connect the Thoughts, a curricula series marketed to homeschoolers, said his doctor's medical perspective helped confirm his own research and conviction that vaccination is "more dangerous than helpful, and not a very good idea."

Horwich said his children were less likely to get sick after he began educating them at home—homeschooling was a natural deterrent to germ spread because exposure to other students was limited. His two children are now adults, but Horwich said he's worked with hundreds of homeschoolers over the past decade, and met many who refused inoculation because of their personal research or for religious reasons. Some had an added motive: "They didn't trust anything that the government recommended. ... If the government says do it, they don't."

U.S. health officials have stoked that mistrust in recent years by recommending all preteens—girls and boys—be vaccinated for human papillomavirus (HPV), which spreads only through sexual activity. Social Science & Medicine this summer reported that homeschoolers are significantly less likely than public-school children to have received an HPV vaccine. However, they aren't less likely to have gotten shots for tetanus or meningitis, according to the same study.

Jay Wile, who has written a science textbook series popular among home educators, occasionally speaks at homeschool conferences in defense of vaccines. When he spoke to WORLD last year for a story on whooping cough (see "Risking deadly diseases," Feb. 12, 2011), he told me he was "sympathetic to a lot of folks who don't trust the government, because there are aspects of government I don't trust, either." But immunization isn't one. Wile said vaccines do come with risks of side effects—fevers, seizures, and in very rare cases, severe allergic reactions—but with a disease like measles, "the question is, do I worry about a side effect of the vaccine, or do I worry about someone bringing the virus in from somewhere else? And based on risk medicine analysis, it's a riskier thing to not get the vaccine." Wile keeps a folder with emails from conference attendees who say he changed their mind.

Clearly, the risk varies: Some vaccine-preventable diseases are especially dangerous, such as HIB, a bacterial infection that causes meningitis and kills as many as 6 percent of those infected. Chickenpox, on the other hand, rarely causes death. Other diseases, like polio, would only be a threat to U.S. residents if a traveler carried the virus from overseas.

Neglecting immunization doesn't just put a single person at risk of a contagious disease, though—that person becomes more likely to pass the illness on to someone else. The someone else might be a newborn too young to receive a whooping cough vaccine, or an elderly person who has a heightened chance of hospitalization or death if he or she catches seasonal flu. In a position statement affirming immunization, the Christian Medical & Dental Associations, representing 16,000 doctors and dentists, note, "Those who model their lives in imitation of Christ should reflect on their obligation to take personal risk for the good of others."

The Indiana measles outbreak illustrated how quickly a rare but contagious disease can circulate among a group of unvaccinated people. The virus spread for two months while health officials worked to contain it, at an average cost of $4,932 per patient. Although only three people were hospitalized, and no one died, measles is a serious disease, responsible for an estimated 164,000 deaths globally in 2008 (down from 2.6 million in 1980, before broad vaccination efforts). Most measles deaths occur in children under 5.

In a follow-up study, researchers asked families affected by the Indiana outbreak whether the event had changed their negative view of vaccines. Most said no. Yet most said they were willing to quarantine their families if another disease outbreak occurred, and said they'd consider receiving at least some vaccines in the future, especially if traveling outside the country. Those steps would help protect them—and be good for their community, too.

Daniel James Devine
Daniel James Devine

Daniel is a reporter for WORLD who covers science, technology, and other topics in the Midwest from his home base in Indiana. Follow Daniel on Twitter @DanJamDevine.

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