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Mandatory Vaccinations Undergo a Year Under the Microscope

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WebMD Health News

Dec. 28, 1999 (Atlanta) -- Blind faith or abject fear. When it comes to controversy swirling around vaccinations, these are the two extremes. Somewhere in the middle, though, is where a battle approached fever pitch this year over mandatory vaccinations and the safety of those vaccinations.

"Why this year? I think it's a culmination of a reluctance by the institutions and the medical professions to deal with this problem, and it's reaching a critical mass," Barbara Loe Fisher, co-founder and president of the National Vaccine Information Center (NVIC), tells WebMD.

What started in some quarters as a grassroots struggle turned into a groundswell this year in Washington, DC, and state legislatures around the country. Congressional hearings were held on the safety of vaccines. On the heels of these hearings, where citizens' groups testified to a list of ailments possibly associated with the hepatitis B vaccine, the government suspended the requirement for newborns to be immunized with the vaccine unless the mother has risk factors for that disease. The FDA has asked manufacturers to stop using mercury to protect vaccines against contamination, while proposing new regulations requiring pediatric studies of certain new drug and biological products.

And then there was the rotavirus vaccine, which was designed to fight the major cause of severe diarrhea in infants and small children worldwide. Rotashield, as it is called, was yanked from the market after reports of bowel obstructions that sickened some children, and possibly caused at least two deaths. Though an association was made between Rotashield and bowel obstruction, a final explanation is pending.

For parents already concerned about vaccine safety, this merely fanned the flames of the already raging fire. All 50 states require a battery of vaccinations before a child can enter school. But a growing number of parents are questioning that mandate -- some more vocally than others. And they have found allies among groups like the NVIC, which for nearly two decades has not only fought for more information about vaccines, but also for greater flexibility for parents to choose whether their children are immunized. At the center of this issue is a tug-of-war between individuals rights and public health.

"I think the most important thing is to remember what vaccines are for: that the vaccine-preventable diseases are frequently quite serious with severe complications," Walter Orenstein, MD, director of the National Immunization Program for the CDC, tells WebMD.

By shining the spotlight just on safety, Orenstein says, "What often gets omitted is the benefit side, and vaccines have been so successful that [today's parents have never seen] many of these diseases. ... Some of them may never have even heard of some of them, but they're not a threat that's gone away. Except for smallpox, there is the potential for any of these disease to be resurrected."

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