Opinion and Forefront

WOUDENBERG: Taking one's chances with vaccinations

March 3, 2012

Anita Y. WoudenbergWith the spectacle of the Super Bowl behind us, Hoosiers now face what appears to be an alarming byproduct: measles.

According to the press, an epidemic has swept our state, with 14 confirmed cases of measles so far, and the possibility of hundreds of thousands being exposed (we’ll know once the 10- to 12-day incubation period passes).

Sound hyped? Probably. But even more concerning to me is the reaction: This should have been prevented. Why?

While certainly not fun, a case of the measles rarely causes death. Typically, I’d get a fever, a rash, and would be uncomfortable for a few weeks (and once I’ve had it, I’m forever immune). Yet, ironically, the potential effect of its vaccine is much more deadly.

Peanut oil is a known component in manufacturing some vaccines, including for measles. But since as early as 1839 (perhaps earlier), the scientific community has known that injecting an organism with a substance that contains traces of a food protein (in the 1839 case, it was an egg white) would create an allergic-type reaction in that organism if exposed again to that same food protein (the animal died).

German scientist Otto Prausnitz gave himself asthma and hives in the early 20th century after injecting himself while testing an allergy theory. This result is not news to the medical world.

The odds of death from measles are one in 300 million. The odds of death from a peanut allergy: about one in 125. When it comes to my life, I’m pretty risk-averse. I’d put my money on taking my chances.

Same with tetanus vaccine. Studies show it depletes the immune system, making its recipient more susceptible to infection or disease. If you have HIV, it disables your immune system entirely. And the diphtheria tetanus and pertussis vaccines are strongly correlated with the onset of polio—or at least, the version used in 1950 was.

And therein lies another problem. We don’t entirely know what all is in a vaccine or when it’s changed.

Pharmaceutical companies don’t have to disclose the contents of their vaccines. From a business perspective, this makes sense—this protects trade secrets. From a consumer perspective, however, it doesn’t.

Why we would agree to put something in our bodies that we cannot know the contents of is foolhardy. I suppose we could rely on the FDA to protect us. But given that it has determined that McDonald’s serves food, I for one am not inclined to rely on that agency’s wisdom.

What makes the situation even worse is that pharmaceutical companies are not liable for damages caused by vaccines. There is nothing to motivate them to prevent allergic reactions or other side effects to their vaccines other than public outcry. And this has been silenced by our ignorance.

Despite our ignorance, all Hoosier children must get vaccinated for diphtheria, pertussis (whooping cough), tetanus, measles, rubella, poliomyelitis and mumps under state law. And for those eligible, Indiana provides these vaccines free of charge.

Now pharmaceutical companies are sitting pretty. Their immunity to lawsuits, our ignorance and their guaranteed distribution of their product across the state totally destroys the concept of free market supply and demand, and leaves them free to do as they will, sitting on a pile of cash.

I’m not trying to create fear and panic. Pharmaceutical companies aren’t presumptively evil, nor is my doctor inherently untrustworthy. I am grateful for pharmaceutical companies like Eli Lilly and Co., which works hard to offer medical solutions and remedies to Hoosier injuries and diseases—please continue your research to find life-saving remedies.

But as consumers, we Hoosiers need to realize that businesses will sell us (and our government) whatever we are willing to buy. It’s time to take ownership for ourselves and our children and ask questions—of our doctors, our government.

Ignorance is a bliss short-lived.•

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Woudenberg practices constitutional law at The Bopp Law Firm in Terre Haute. Send comments on this column to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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