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The Vaccine Debate

Is This Shot Needed Now?

Ten years ago, Lisa of Gulfport, Mississippi, brought her first baby, Helen, home from the hospital. That night, the baby spiked a fever of 102°F. Her pediatrician sent them straight to the emergency room. Tiny Helen was subjected to a spinal tap to rule out meningitis, then hospitalized for three days of intravenous antibiotics in case of blood poisoning.

But Helen had neither meningitis nor sepsis; doctors concluded that she was reacting to the hepatitis B vaccine she'd received in the hospital the day she was born. Though Helen hasn't suffered any long-term ill effects, Everleigh is still angry. "What my baby went through was horrible and completely unnecessary. An infant's chances of contracting hepatitis are nil unless the mother has the disease, and it was highly unlikely I would be a carrier," she says. "So I was kicking myself for not questioning the vaccine. And I was mad at the medical community for recommending it in the first place. My child suffered because of a blanket policy designed to protect a population she doesn't even belong to." With Helen's younger siblings -- Katherine, 6, and Michael, 10 months -- Everleigh was cautious: She let both have the hepatitis B vaccine, but not until they were 2 months old, when a high fever wouldn't be such a medical emergency (they've gotten all their other shots on schedule). Since 1991, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has recommended that children get a shot right after birth, since tests for a mom's exposure aren't foolproof.

Jill Scobie of Asheville, North Carolina, avoids nearly all vaccines for her three children except when she believes the risk of serious illness is greater than the risk posed by the vaccine -- as when her 11-year-old daughter visited Latin America with an aunt. Scobie knows several families whose children are suffering from debilitating autoimmune disorders that their parents think were caused by vaccines. Although medical research has shown no connection, she's not convinced. "Infectious-disease experts aren't discussing the risks of long-term effects like arthritis and lupus. They don't treat those diseases, so they're not even on their radar."

Public-health policy in the U.S. doesn't make it easy for moms like Scobie to decide against vaccinations for their kids, says San Diego lawyer Karin Schumacher, a national advocate for the right of parents to refuse vaccines. Requiring vaccinations for enrollment in daycare or grade school effectively eliminates most parents' right to opt out. "It's an insult to parents because it says that the medical community doesn't trust us to make good decisions about our children's health," Schumacher says.

After her own daughter, now 12, suffered a frightening reaction to the DTP (diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis) vaccine when she was 2 months old -- a high fever, inconsolable crying, a painful knot at the injection site that lasted for weeks -- Schumacher refused any shots once her daughter turned 1. (DTP has since been replaced by DTaP, which causes far fewer reactions.) "I don't believe the medical community is telling people about the real dangers, and I don't believe society has the right to make me take risks with my child's health for the sake of a perceived benefit to the common good," she says. "I'm obligated to take care of my own child first."