Vaccine refusal -- you call this cautious?

Childhood immunizations are victims of their own success.

The dreadful diseases against which they protect our children are distant memories. We have forgotten polio, or that measles, mumps and rubella — the MMR of vaccine language — could cause deafness, blindness, brain damage or seizures.

So, in 1998, when a British study purported to link the mysterious condition known as autism to those vaccinations, it was easy for parents to decide to err on the side of caution.

More recently, as we became obsessed with the pesticides used to grow our food and the additives used to preserve its flavors, the unknown concoction of drugs injected into our newborns was one more thing to be suspicious of, to be fearful of. One more thing we believe we can safely live without.

The study linking childhood immunizations with autism has now been completely discredited. The British Medical Journal, following the investigative reporting of journalist Brian Deer, has declared the study to be not just junk science but a complete and deliberate fraud on the part of Dr. Andrew Wakefield, who has been stripped of his license to practice medicine.

In addition, American journalist Seth Mnookin has just published a book titled "The Panic Virus," in which he traces the history of childhood vaccines, with special attention to the stubborn rumor that they caused autism. And he faults mainstream media with "a willingness to parrot quack claims under the guise of reporting on citizen concerns."

These two publications should put the last shovel of dirt on top of any fear of new parents that vaccines do more harm than good.

Or will they?

Brandeis University historian Michael Willrich is writing a book on the history of smallpox, and in an essay in The New York Times, he describes government troops and city policemen wielding clubs for the forcible administration of smallpox vaccine to suspicious factory workers and immigrants.

He quotes a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that 40 percent of American parents with young children have delayed or refused one or more vaccines for their child (although delay is not nearly the same as refusal).

We may never get over our suspicion of shots the government tells us our children must have. Witness the new HPV vaccination that has been shown to prevent the sexually transmitted virus that can cause cervical cancer in women.

It is required in some school districts — notably Washington, D.C. Yet only the tiniest percentage of pre-teens has had the vaccination there. Parents can file paperwork stating that they have read the information about HPV but are opting out of the vaccine, but that hasn't happened either.

Clearly, this health alert has not penetrated the busy lives of parents — or their suspicion of the power wielded by the combined forces of medicine and government.

The health of our children is, or should be, sacred to us as parents. And grandparents.

I just had my whooping cough and tetanus vaccines re-administered and received both flu shots in advance of meeting my new grandson for the first time. But I am strangely timid about asking his young parents if they will be having him vaccinated.

I am loath to be the interfering grandmother — I was (half) kidding when I said I thought the baby needed a sweater — but I also fear asking a vaccination question that might send them scurrying to the Internet, a place Mr. Willrich describes as a "bottomless archive of misinformation," and stir in them a fear that should be outweighed by science.

I was one of those mothers who made an appointment for each new vaccine the moment my pediatrician put it on his dance card. Hepatitis B when they where in high school. Meningitis as they were leaving for college. HPV as soon as it was approved. I did the best research I could as a consumer, but in the end I trusted the doctor at the other end of the needle.

Strange. I always considered that to be erring on the side of caution.

Susan Reimer's column appears Mondays. Her e-mail is

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