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The DPT vaccine myth.


In the ancient tradition of mythology, many centuries might elapse before a myth becomes accepted as truth. Not so in our "modem" society, in which the news media can parlay a nonevent into a national catastrophe, particularly when aided by those members of the legal profession who seize upon such events as fair game for a new rash of lawsuits. Regrettably, the price for such nonsense is often paid by those whose "protection" is being sought by those who perpetuate the myth.

A case in point is the great DPT scare of the past two decades. For those of us old enough to remember the devastating effect of diphtheria, whooping cough and tetanus before the diphtheriapertussis-tetanus vaccine virtually wiped out these childhood diseases, the routine administration of DPT vaccine to our infants at ages 2,4 and 6 months, with boosters at 18 months and again when first entering school, was a blessing for which we parents were deeply grateful. Sometime in the early 70s, however, this routine prevention program took a nasty turn. Apparently, parents of some infants who had developed serious neurological problems soon after receiving their first DPT shots wrongly concluded that the immunizations had been responsible for the neurological symptoms and communicated these fears to the news media and to their attorneys. Without benefit of scientific investigation, both media and legal types seized upon the stories, resulting in widespread TV coverage and a rash of lawsuits against vaccine manufacturers.

Although most parents were able to accept the indisputable fact that the danger of the brain damage from whooping cough was far greater than the alleged danger from the pertussis component of the children to be vaccinated. Subsequent outbreaks of whooping cough in several parts of the U.S., as well as in England, Japan and Sweden (where parents had reacted to the American scare), resulted in significant numbers of post-pertussis encephalopathy cases and some deaths in infants who had not been vaccinated.

The more widespread effect of the subsequent careless TV coverage and frivolous lawsuits was to cause several major manufacturers of the vaccine to cease production in the face of rapidly rising costs of successfully defending themselves in the courts, which in turn caused their liability insurance premiums to soar. By late 1984, the vaccine had become so scarce that 18-month and preschool booster shots had to be postponed for many children, and the price of the vaccine had tripled.

Although the production problem has now been alleviated with the failure of the lawsuits to prove a cause-and-effect relationship, many parents still develop unnecessary anxiety when their infants have the mild reactions (sleepiness, low-grade fever, etc.) that often follow administration of the vaccine. Yet three major studies of 230,000 small children who had received a total of 718,000 DPT shots have shown no association between pertussis vaccine and persistent neurological problems. In an editorial response to the most recent of these studies, reported in a recent Journal of the American Medical Association, Dr. James D. Cherry of the UCLA School of Medicine states, "It is time for the myth of pertussis encephalopathy to end."

In another study, University of Minnesota researchers checked the results of persons tested at the state fair, a retail store and a workplace. The workplace, where the technicians had been given less than two days of training, showed the poorest results, whereas the most experienced of the four teams, those at the state fair, had excellent results.
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Title Annotation:diphtheria-pertussis-tetanus
Publication:Medical Update
Date:May 1, 1990
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