Vaccines: Risks Vs. Benefits

Part 1: Introduction to the Issues

by David Crank

    For this article, I have attempted to reexamine this issue objectively, reviewing 350+ pages of material, mostly from a variety of internet sites, but also referencing several books. There is truly a vast amount of material on both sides of this issue. I found this issue to be too large to address adequately in a single article of moderate length. Therefore I have divided it into three separate articles. Part 1: Introduction to the Issues, will provide an overview of the concerns and debate over vaccines. Part 2: The Vaccines & The Diseases, will look at each of the eleven illnesses for which childhood vaccinations are recommended, comparing what is known about the disease risks and the vaccine’s risks. Part 3: Conclusions & Decision Making, will draw some conclusions from the debate while suggesting some principles for others to use in deciding which course is best for their family.

    What parent doesn't want to keep their children healthy and spare them from serious diseases? So when we are told that we should have our children vaccinated for 11 different diseases during their early childhood, most parents readily do so. For some, this has led to tragic results. Thus there is a great debate about the relative benefits and safety of vaccines. Actually there has been much debate about this issue among medical doctors from the very beginning. In the last 20 years, this debate has spilled over into the public arena and has intensified greatly. On one side is the Center for Disease Control (CDC), the pharmaceutical companies, and the majority of medical doctors. On the other side is a minority of doctors and researchers, many alternative medicine practitioners, and parents of children believed damaged by vaccines who have made this issue their cause. 

History of Vaccines
    Vaccines originated with the British physician, Edward Jenner in 1796. Jenner discovered that by inserting diseased matter from a person having cow pox into a cut of a healthy person, that person would become immune to small pox. This was considered a very great discovery, as smallpox was a very deadly disease. Yet even from the first, there were reports of serious side effects and even death from the early smallpox vaccines. Efforts were made to improve the vaccine, to reduce its risks while maintaining its effectiveness, and thus increase the public acceptance of the vaccine. Today, small pox is said to have been eliminated from the earth (though perhaps remaining in some labs for biological warfare). Vaccinations for it are no longer given.

    In 1921 the first diphtheria toxoid (provides immunity to the toxin produced by diphtheria, rather than to the bacteria itself) was developed and began to be widely used in the 1930s. The Tetanus toxoid, was first produced in 1924 was used in the armed forces during World War II. It became a routine childhood immunization in the late 1940's. The Pertussis vaccine was developed in the 1930's and became widely used by the 1940's. The polio vaccine first became available in 1955. The Measles vaccine was licensed in 1963, the Mumps vaccine we use today, in 1967, and the Rubella vaccine was first licensed in 1969 ( today's version licensed in 1979). In the 1980s and 1990s, several other vaccines became available and included in the list of childhood vaccines: Hib, Pneumococcal Conjugate, Hepatitis B, Varicella (Chickenpox), and Hepatitis A.

How Vaccines Work
    Our immune systems attack germs of various sorts that enter our body, partly by making antibodies to destroy the germs. However, in many cases the germs have already multiplied greatly before our immune system is able to fight back, causing us to experience the symptoms of the sickness. After the germs are destroyed, antibodies for fighting that type of germ remain in our body, guarding against future attacks by that same germ.

    The theory behind vaccines is that they cause your body to develop immunity to a disease without having to first catch the true disease. They do so by exposing your body to killed or weakened forms of the given germ, causing the body to fight back with antibodies against the invader. In most cases, the germs should not actually result in sickness or serious side effects because of their weakened or killed state.
One of the criticisms of vaccinations in general is the means by which germs are introduced to the body. With the exception of the oral polio vaccine, these vaccine germs are introduced into the body by means of injection.In the natural environment, most germs enter through our mouths and digestive system or through the air into our nose or lungs. Our body's normal defenses include much more than the antibodies present in the bloodstream. Direct injection bypasses many of the body's defenses, perhaps impacting both the body's ability to safely deal with the weakened germ, and also the degree of immunity resulting.

Key Issues in the Debate
The debate about vaccines has become much broader than some may realize. There seems to be very little common ground of agreement between the two camps. They appear to disagree about the diseases, the research, the statistics, and most everything else. There appears to be clear evidence of exaggeration, fear tactics, selective information and purposeful distortions /lies - on both sides. Following are some of the key issues in this debate:

1) Risks of the Diseases. Just how dangerous are these diseases for which vaccines exist? One side often quotes infection and death rates based on experience in the U.S. shortly before the vaccine was introduced. The other side notes the strong trend before the vaccine indicating the disease was becoming much less common and deaths and complications were also dropping. They may also quote more modern estimates of death rates based on current medical treatments available or experience in other countries where the vaccines has not been widely used. With some diseases, one side will stress that the disease is a serious one and that children do die from this disease. The other side will say that the disease is relatively harmless and only very unusual cases with complicating factors ever result in death or serious injury.

2) Vaccine Effectiveness. How effective is the given vaccine in protecting any given individual from the disease? No one claims 100% effectiveness, but there is much debate as to just how high a percentage and how long immunity lasts. The one side regularly cites 90+% effectiveness and probably lifetime immunity, if the prescribed timing is followed and boosters taken as instructed. The other side cites their evidence that certain vaccines are perhaps only 50-60% effective with immunity often wearing of in 5-10 years (making the diseases even more dangerous with most adults lacking immunity). Some claim that research does not support any vaccine immunity lasting beyond 10 years (versus usual lifetime immunity when acquired naturally from the disease). 

3) Adverse Vaccine Reactions. This is the area of hottest debate. The one side cites statistics and studies indicating that adverse reactions are extremely rare and have not been found to result in death or hardly any serious condition. Some go so far as to state, "No deaths are known to have ever been caused by DTP or DtaP vaccine". 

    The other side presents the cases of many children who exhibited vaccine reactions that appeared to progress to the point of death within hours or days of receiving such a vaccine. They also point to the many studies and publications of concerns by doctors and researchers that certain vaccines appear to be causing a small number of deaths. They refer to the many cases taken to the U.S. Court of Claims, with the verdict that the vaccine was the probable cause of death (and large sums were awarded in damages). Many of these deaths are attributed to the DTP vaccine.

    Then there are the claims or at least suspicions, by certain researchers and parents, that certain vaccines are contributing to SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome) deaths and many longer-term serious health conditions (autism, juvenile diabetes, brain damage, autoimmune diseases, etc.). Few will claim that these associations are positively proven, but many cite anecdotal evidence and "coincidences" that might imply causation. Certainly there is a great mystery as to the cause of the huge upsurge in some of these diseases in the last 50 years (and explaining it by just better recognition and reporting of the condition seems unbelievable). However, the other side cites large-scale studies and analysis of statistics that they believe refute the possibility of vaccines being a cause of these other problems.

4) How Vaccines Are Produced & What They Contain. Vaccine opponents raise the moral issue of using vaccines cultured using aborted babies. (Note: there are alternative vaccine brands in most cases that were not cultured from fetuses). Likewise concerns are raised about other vaccines cultured in monkeys or other animals and the possibility of foreign proteins and viruses being transmitted along with the vaccines. Other chemicals present in vaccines as preservatives are also questioned as to their toxicity, cancer causing impact, and risk for allergic reaction. The other side counters that these problems ar e mostly illusory. There are no harmful animal viruses or proteins in the vaccines and the chemicals used are safe. They recently changed the formulation of one such vaccine to exclude a chemical that many had become concerned about.

5) Herd Immunity. Those in favor of vaccines argue the importance of maintaining a high level of vaccination in order to protect the population as a whole. They note that vaccines fail to provide immunity to a small number of people and a very small minority is unable to be vaccinated because of severe reactions. Therefore it is everyone's duty to be vaccinated for the sake of the community as a whole - to protect others. It is unfair for some to refuse vaccination as they endanger others while enjoying the protection provided by most others being vaccinated.

    Those opposed to vaccines argue for parents' responsibility to make the best decision for their own family. They ask whether it is right to ask some to sacrifice their children for the good of the whole (especially when little effort is made to identify risk factors that predispose some to serious risk). They also question just how effective many vaccines are in truly protecting populations. 

6) Vaccine Policies and Informed Consent. Vaccine critics believe parents are not being given the opportunity for informed consent. The risks are generally not being mentioned at all, even the legal disclosures of risks that come with the vaccines are not being shown to the parents. Parents are being pressured by fear tactics, laws enacted requiring vaccinations, school admission requirements, even sometimes threats of turning them in to Child Protection Services for neglect of their children's vaccinations. Parents are not being told about legally provided reasons for exemption from vaccination requirements. Vaccines are being promoted to the public in a less than fully honest way.
The other side denies any misrepresentation and stresses the critical need to keep people from fearing vaccines. The population as a whole is only protected if nearly everyone gets the vaccine. We must do nothing that might dissuade people form vaccinating their children. 

Good Sources for Studying Yourself
    There are vast resources on the internet for those desiring to search and study for themselves. However, you should realize that some of the material presented may be inaccurate, distorted or even purposefully deceptive. Consider your sources carefully and validate them by comparing with other sources, even those on the opposite side of the issue. Perhaps the best place to start, is with the Center for Disease Control's site ( Here you can see what the chief governmental authority on vaccines says. This site also includes links to many other vaccine supportive sites.

    Then perhaps one of the best sites for the anti-vaccine camp is the National Vaccine Information Center site ( This site appears to be more careful with facts and assertions while still championing the cause for safer vaccines, accurate and honest disclosure of risks, etc. Links are provided to many other sites with information critical of vaccinations.

    A third site I found of particular interest was This is the site of a medical pathologist, who is admittedly biased in favor of vaccines but admitting the possibility of some severe side effects. His site is focus primarily on pointing out false or misleading information presented by anti-vaccine activists. You may or may not agree with his position and assessments, but I think we all would like more honesty from both sides!

    I highly recommend the book, "How to Raise a Healthy Child … In Spite of Your Doctor" by Robert S. Mendelsohn, M.D., which contains one chapter addressing vaccines. It is a little out of date (1984), but offers terrific insights from a pediatrician with about 30 years of experience. He is the unusual pediatrician who is openly opposed to vaccines and willing to share his insights from the medical evidence and his personal experience. Another book I found interesting, though perhaps a little too extreme in some assertions and tone, was Neil Z. Miller's, "Vaccines: Are They Really Safe and Effective?" This book was published in 1992 and is the result of extensive research by Mr. Miller and is thoroughly footnoted, encouraging you to verify his assertions for yourself. 

In Part 2, in the Nov/Dec 2001 issue, I will present information about each of the illnesses and their vaccines. This will be helpful for parents wishing to evaluate the risks of each (disease and vaccine), as best as possible. Some may decide to vaccine their children for all of these disease while others choose to avoid them all. Still others may decide that certain vaccines are worth the risk and make sense, while other are not worth the risks. 

Volume 2 Issue 5: September /October 2001, © Unless The Lord ... Magazine