Vaccine is the biggest whoop

The title of Lisa Provence's December 4 article is perfect. "Big whoop," indeed. Pertussis cases peak in three- to four-year cycles. Statistically speaking, we're right on cue (# Virginia cases 1996-2002: 108, 59, 56, 65, 134, 12, 88). No surprise.

Not to say that pertussis isn't a concern. How big? You decide. Every year in the US, there are about 10 reported pertussis deaths– usually among infants under six months old, among whom pre-term and low birth-weight babies, babies born to teen mothers, and Hispanic babies are most at risk.

It's important to avoid hysteria, paranoia, and misconceptions.

Provence writes, "Before a vaccine was developed, between 5,000 an 10,000 people died each year from the disease in the US." She's half-right. The highest number of reported US pertussis deaths (9,269) occurred in 1923, and vaccines were widely implemented in the late 1940s. But her assumption that the two are related is wrong.

Pertussis rates declined rapidly without vaccines. By World War II, cases were one-tenth of what they had been 40 years before. (Pre-vaccine declines in tetanus, diphtheria, measles, and polio put other vaccine triumph claims in question.)

Mortality rates did decline rapidly in the postwar period, but pertussis epidemics still occur, despite vaccines. In Cincinnati and Chicago's 1993 outbreaks, 80-90 percent of cases were fully vaccinated children.

Dare we question the vaccine's effectiveness– and its safety? Clinical research has linked the vaccine to febrile seizures, encephalopathy, asthma, hypotonic-hyporesponsive episodes (rag doll syndrome), and death.

Yes, death. According to the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System, 85 people died from pertussis vaccines in 1995 alone. Yet, the CDC reports only 103 wild pertussis deaths in the entire decade. Do the math. The vaccine killed eight times more people than the wild virus.

True, the current acellular DTaP cocktail is less toxic than the old, whole-cell variety. But it's less effective in providing immunity (as low as 40 percent in some studies). And, it's largely untested.

Clinical literature states: "The number of subjects who have received DTaP vaccines to date has been too small to calculate the risk of extremely rare but potentially life-threatening reactions." The risk of this vaccine is assessed by a post-marketing, passive surveillance system– which is to say that your child is, in effect, a lab rat in a poor study (incidentally, pertussis toxoid is allegedly used to induce encephalitis in lab animals).

Parents who want to make educated decisions should visit the National Vaccine Information Center at Or, read Fisher & Coulter's dated, though relevant, DPT: A Shot in the Dark. Or swing by the UVA stacks and read testimonies of the May 18, 1999 U.S. House Committee on Government Reform Subcommittee on Drug Policy.


Brian Wimer