TV Report On Vaccine Stirs Bitter Controversy


April 28, 1982

A television report on the dangers of the whooping cough vaccine, part of the DPT triple vaccine mandatory for almost all childern in this country, was denounced as “imbalanced” and “inaccurate” last week by national and local medical experts. Area pediatricians and health officials said they were flooded with calls from frightened parents.

Both the American Academy of Pediatrics and the national Center for Disease Control in Atlanta, as well as local doctors and health officials, continued to urge that all young children take the vaccine, which protects them against diphtheria, pertussis (whooping cough) and tetanus.

Dr. Martin Levy, administrator of preventive health services for the D.C. Department of Human Services said, “From the data I have seen, there is no indication that we should stop using the vaccine.”

While side effects from the vaccine are possible, they are rare, Dr. Levy said. “There is no question that we would all like to see a better vaccine. . . . But for the protection of the general health, we have to use this vaccine until we get a better one.”

Doctors and health officials said that the WRC-TV documentary, “DPT: Vaccine Roulette,” emphasized the risks of the vaccine while ignoring the dangers of the disease, which has been almost wiped out in this country. Whooping cough can result in death, brain damage or severe lung disease.

They also expressed concern that a public loss of confidence in the vaccine could result in epidemics such as those that have occurred in the United Kingdom and Japan.

The American Academy of Pediatrics protested in a letter to NBC president Robert Mulholland that the program was “unfortunate and dangerous.” The show’s “distortion and total lack of balance of scientific fact” has caused “extraordinary anguish and perhaps irreparable harm to the health and welfare of the nation’s children,” the letter continued.

Reporter Lea Thompson, who wrote and produced the show and, with her staff, spent a year researching it, defended the documentary: “We checked this thing 16 ways against the middle.”

She said she got little cooperation from the medical community, and defended her evaluation of the statistics she used.

Thompson said the response has been “overwhelming,” with more than 2,000 calls to the station, many from parents commending the program or reporting suspicions that the vaccine had damaged their children.

Four of those people have begun to organize a group called DPT (Dissatisfied Parents Together), which hopes to spark a national debate over the safety and effectiveness of the vaccine and possible compensation for victims.

“I think the show did a great service by raising issues and showing parents the cases are not isolated, not freak incidents,” said one of the four, Jeff Schwartz of Chevy Chase, an environmental health consultant.

“It would be a mistake,” he said, for the debate to center on the show itself and not on the serious questions raised about the safety of the vaccine, its victims, and possible compensation for children who have been hurt by it, as well as on the responsibility of doctors, health officials and the drug industry.

Schwartz, who said his 14-month-old daughter, Julie, has continual severe seizures and posssible learning problems because of the vaccine, added that many parents from across the country have called. The parents expressed “shock” that the symptoms described in the show matched the cases of their own children so closely and said that they had been unaware of the connection with DPT, Schwartz said.

Maryl Levine of Chevy Chase, another group member, said she now believes the DPT shots caused her 14-year-old son’s severe brain damage. She said that she compared notes she made at the time her son became ill with descriptions of the reactions reported in the television show and found them almost identical.

On Capitol Hill, Rep. Dan Mica (D-Fla.) has called for hearings in the House. The staff of the Senate subcommittee on investigations and general oversight may include the subject in its May 7 hearings on federal funding for immunizations for poor children.

The hour-long TV program, which aired three times locally and was excerpted on NBC’s Today show, included a debate by experts on the safety of the vaccine along with footage of children who had been severely brain damaged by the shots. Eleven minutes of the film were devoted to the crippled children and their families, and less than two minutes to a description of a little girl with whooping cough.

“What are you going to remember?” asked Dr. Ray Coleman, a pediatrician with offices in the District and Rockville, “a doctor in a white coat sitting behind a desk or a kid writhing with infantile spasms?”

Although doctors and health experts interviewed about the program admitted there are risks to the vaccine of which the public should be made aware, they questioned Thompson’s figures and her contention that the disease is no longer a “killer . . . except in infants who are probably too young to receive the vaccine.”

The philosophy of public health officials has been to protect those children by immunizing older siblings.

“Pertussis is still a killer,” said Dr. Glenn Austin, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, “and is itself a cause of brain damage and severe lung disease.”

He said that the vaccine is responsible for the decline of the disease from 265,000 cases and 7,000 deaths a year 40 years ago to 1,000 to 3,000 cases and five to 20 deaths a year now.

The national Center for Disease Control acknowledged that fatalities are less common now because of improved medical technology and nutrition, but said the disease is still dangerous.

“We know that one out of 100,000 children or one in 300,000 doses of the vaccine have some neurological problem,” said Dr. Kenneth Barth, spokesman for the CDC. The occurrence of permanent brain damage in those who get whooping cough is one in 10,000, “a reduction in risk (that is) tenfold.”

Dr. Robert H. Parrott, director of Children’s Hospital, in response to a flood of calls from doctors after the show, has distributed a statement pointing out that in the 1977-79 epidemic in Great Britain more children died of whooping cough than would have been severely damaged by the vaccine.

He said older doctors who had seen pertussis were the “most disturbed” and some had vowed to quit practice before they stop giving the vaccine.

Parrott acknowledged that some children are at high risk and that doctors should be extremely careful not to give further shots to those who have had a serious reaction, such as a high fever or convulsions.

Thompson charged that dangerous reactions to the vaccine could be as high as one in 700, a figure disputed by the academy of pediatrics and the CDC.

More worrisome to Parrott and other experts were Thompson’s charges that many doctors are misinformed or unaware of the complications, and do not tell their patients of the risks, and that, because they fear lawsuits, they may not say that damage, when it occurs, may result from the vaccine.

Many parents, worried about the complications, called their pediatricians last week.

“People are afraid to have the vaccine,” said Dr. Beale Ong, chairman of the D.C. Chapter of the Academy of Pediatrics. Ong and other doctors interviewed said they are explaining the risks and the benefits and urging parents to have their children vaccinated. They are also advising parents to watch for possible complications.


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