Feb. 22, 2007— -- When we worry, we worry the most about our children. Everyone wants to keep them safe.
When politicians want us to fall in line, they always talk about saving the children. And our feelings about kids have created very intense emotions about vaccines. Some people say vaccines are dangerous. Robert F. Kennedy Jr. said that they have "poisoned an entire generation of American children."
Kennedy has added his voice to the chorus of angry parents who are convinced that mercury in vaccines causes harm to children.
"It's causing IQ loss, mental retardation, speech delay, language delay, ADD, hyperactivity," he said.
Barbara Loe Fisher, who heads the Vaccine Information Center, goes on television to alert parents about the dangers of vaccines.
On the "Today Show," she said, "We need to find out why so many of our highly vaccinated children are so sick."
The biggest worry today is autism. Before kids received so many vaccines, says Fisher, "you didn't see autistic children. Autism was so rare. Most people had never heard of it."
And the protestors blame the vaccines.
Dr Paul Offit is the chief of infectious diseases at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. He's also in the vaccine business. He developed and patented the rotavirus vaccine.
"I think that it's perfectly reasonable to be skeptical about anything you put into your body, including vaccines," said Offit. "And vaccines do have side effects. But vaccines don't cause autism."
Offit can say that with confidence because the National Academy of Sciences recently reviewed the science. They concluded that 19 major studies, tracking thousands of kids, all show no link between vaccines and autism.
"The question has been raised, it's been answered," said Offit. "Vaccines don't cause autism."
Then why are so many kids being diagnosed with autism? Because kids we once said had other conditions are now being called autistic.
As researchers from the March of Dimes put it, "improvements in detection and changes in diagnosis account for the observed increase in autism." Their data on autism rates in California showed that the increase in autism diagnoses almost exactly matched a decline in cases of retardation: autism prevalence increased by 9.1 cases per 10,000 children, while mental retardation dropped by 9.3 per 10,000.
"People that we once called quirky or geeky or nerdy are now called autistic," said Offit. "Because when you give that label of say, autistic spectrum disorder, you allow that child then to qualify for services which otherwise they wouldn't be qualified to get."
Two decades ago, "20/20" did a report which said that the whooping cough vaccine may lead to permanent neurological disorder and Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS).
Personal injury lawyer Allen McDowell said vaccine makers were victimizing kids, and more than 20 years later, he still says the vaccine makers put money before safety.
"There's no dispute about that. They were making so much money off the old vaccine they didn't really have any incentive to improve it."
McDowell made money too. The lawyer won lots of lawsuits.
"I made -- a good chunk of money," he said.
The vaccine makers did revise the whooping cough vaccine and the new version was approved by the FDA in 1991.
"The old (whooping cough) vaccine was probably our most reactogenic vaccine, which is to say that it had the highest rate of side effects," says Offit. "I mean, it could cause seizures with fever -- although it didn't cause epilepsy, meaning the permanent seizures --[but] it certainly could trigger seizures…it caused pain and tenderness at the site of injection…it caused floppy baby syndrome, a so-called 'hypo-tonic, hypo-response' syndrome. It caused persistent, inconsolable crying. And so, there was always an interest in trying to make that vaccine safer. But the science had to catch up to that."
Those serious side effects were temporary, not the permanent conditions for which lawyers often sued vaccine makers. In fact, comprehensive studies also reviewed by the National Academy of Sciences did not find that the old vaccine caused SIDS or permanent brain damage.
Lost in this debate is the disease the vaccine prevents. Whooping cough racks a baby's body with violent fits of coughing. In its most extreme form, it kills. But after "20/20'"s vaccine report, many parents told their doctors, "I'm scared of your vaccine."
I asked Dr. Richard Saphir, my children's pediatrician, what he thought of that program.
"It was certainly alarmist," he said.
In fact, when my daughter Lauren got a fever after one of the vaccines, he decided not to give her the final shot, and a short time afterward, she got whooping cough.
Dr. Saphir said that the fact that I was a "20/20" correspondent made him even more anxious about giving my daughter the vaccine.
My daughter recovered from her whooping cough. She was surprised to hear that our reporting could confuse parents and influence doctors.
"Parents go in and force their physicians to agree to not give the vaccines even though the physicians say, you're making a stupid decision?" she asked. "Then you guys are doing a really bad thing."
Parent Suzanne Walther agrees. On internet sites, Walther read so many horror stories about vaccines, that so she postponed vaccinating her daughter, Mary Catherine.
"Some of the vaccine stories said that if I had my child vaccinated they were going to die of SIDS," she said. "I'm very protective of my children, I don't want to do something to them that might cause them harm."
But not vaccinating caused harm. Mary Catherine got very sick with spinal meningitis.
"Our pediatrician put us in an ambulance to go to Vanderbilt Hospital immediately," said Walther. "It is a deadly disease. There's a huge risk of deafness, blindness, it's very painful."
Mary Catherine recovered, but she's one of many kids who are coming down with diseases doctors once thought were nearly eradicated, like mumps, measles, and whooping cough.
These diseases are coming back because pockets of frightened parents won't vaccinate their kids, some, after they search for information and end up on websites like Barbara Loe Fisher's. I asked Fisher about how sites like hers scare parents.
"You're really the vaccines' scare center. When you scare people stupid, and they don't get vaccinated, that spreads nasty diseases," I said.
"I don't think I've scared anybody stupid. We do not tell people to vaccinate or not vaccinate," she replied.
Fisher says she can't say whether vaccines are "good or bad."
"You can't say vaccines are good, vaccines haven't done more good than harm?" I asked?
"It's a complex issue," she said.
McDowell is now thinking about filing new lawsuits saying vaccine companies caused autism. I told him I thought he was an opportunistic hustler, preying on worried parents. McDowell disagreed.
"That's not the way I look at it. I look at it that I'm doing a service for the public in these immunizations."
He said of the whopping cough vaccine that, "if there hadn't been the litigation, they'd still be using the same old vaccine and causing a lot more serious problems."
Nonsense, says Offit. Lawyers didn't make the whooping cough vaccine better. "Science is always a process of evolution, and I think we had to get to the point in science where we could make the kind of purified products at commercial level that, that we couldn't do before," Offit said. The lawsuits "are a great example of just what can happen when, when lawyers go crazy…I think there's a certain profiteering that comes with, with fear."
So I told McDowell I thought he was part of the Fear Industrial Complex, scaring people and making money off of it. After a long pause, he said, "True."