Calling the shots: parents opting out of immunizations raise serious public health issues.

Author:Knopper, Melissa

At age two, Barbara Loe Fisher's oldest son went to the pediatrician for his DPT shot and something went terribly wrong. She watched, terrified, as his eyes rolled back into his head and his body went limp. He had temporary paralysis. But the long--term effects were the hardest--this precocious little boy forgot his ABCs and became learning disabled for life.

Fisher channeled her emotions into action and started a group called the National Vaccine Infor-mation Center in Vienna, Virginia. Her son is now 29, and she continues to push for safer vaccines and additional options for parents who believe their children are more susceptible to risk.

Publicity about kids who react to shots--combined with autism fears and mistrust of traditional medicine--has led to a backlash against childhood vaccines. If too many parents opt out, public health officials say, it could spawn a dangerous resurgence of disease. Currently, less than two percent of parents avoid vaccinations, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, but it's higher in certain states. Measles, mumps, polio and whooping cough outbreaks have already spread through parts of Colorado and the Midwest.

Party for a Pox?

New York pediatric nurse practitioner Mary Beth Petraco saw this trend take a turn for the worse when one of her friends decided to pass up the chicken pox vaccine. Instead, the friend took her young daughter to a chicken pox party.

This is happening around the country-when a child comes down with a case of chicken pox, the parents send word to others in the community. They let the children share sippy cups and lollipops to increase the odds that all the little party-goers will get chicken pox, too.

The wild strain of chicken pox does build stronger immunity than the vaccine, says Petraco, coordinator of child health for Suffolk County Department of Health Services. But, as her friend discovered, chicken pox can be unpredictable.

The little girl scratched a lesion on her neck and got an infection. The swelling was so bad, it blocked her windpipe and she couldn't talk. The girl survived the ordeal, Petraco says, but her mother regretted taking her to the chicken pox party.

"Before the vaccine, chicken pox hospitalized a lot of kids. There will always be some that have serious consequences," says CDC spokesperson Curtis Allen. "If you go to a chicken pox party, you're gambling."

Collective Amnesia

The current generation of parents making the decisions about vaccines...

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