Stormy Weather

I am writing in response to Eric Alterman’s column “Days of Crazy” [May 4]. I was a youthful member/advocate of the Students for a Democratic Society during that period, from 1969 to 1971. I was never a part and never a supporter of the Weatherman faction of SDS. In fact, I argued against tactics that could cause human harm. The split that created Weatherman was largely about the appropriateness of violence and the acceptability of collateral damage (harm to humans) from actions against the war machine.

But let us look back. US interference in Vietnam goes back to Eisenhower’s blocking free elections in 1958 because it was clear that Ho Chi Minh would win. This was followed by an ever-escalating war by the US government against the Vietnamese people. More than a decade later, Johnson had expanded the war, and Nixon was bombing Cambodia.

We had been marching to get the United States out of Vietnam for years. If the purpose was to end the war, chanting “Bring the troops home” was not working. “Bring the war home” changed the picture. The idea that a few casualties here might spare thousands in Vietnam was compelling. Young Americans came to the view that, if we had to have a war, we might as well have it here. This helped scare the country to its senses. It changed the conversation. The actions of the Weathermen that the author describes as “idiotic” helped to bring the war on Vietnam to an end.

Jonathan Spero
grants pass, ore.

Eric Alterman Replies

In the words of that immortal moral philosopher Ricky Ricardo, “I don thin so…”
Eric Alterman
brooklyn, ny

Dose of Reality

In her article “The Truth About the Measles” [March 23/30], Annie Sparrow declares that “the vaccine is safe.” This is not true. People suffer complications from vaccines quite often, and the US government has a program called VAERS (Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System) that has collected nearly 500,000 cases. There is also a federal vaccine-injury compensation program that has paid out $3 billion.

It’s true that some people have been using VAERS data inappropriately, claiming that the measles vaccine has caused hundreds of deaths. Yes, VAERS records do show over 300 reports of death following receipt of measles-containing shots. But the truth is more complicated. First, the measles vaccine is almost always administered with the vaccines for mumps and rubella; second, this MMR vaccine is often given along with many other childhood vaccinations during the same office visit. So it is impossible to state which shot or combination of shots caused a death. Also, VAERS does not have enough data to make conclusive scientific pronouncements about cause and effect. VAERS is merely an “indicator” of vaccine-injury trends that public-health officials and researchers can then explore in more detail.

Nevertheless, people do die or are seriously injured after getting measles vaccines. In fact, the US Supreme Court has stated that vaccines are “unavoidably unsafe.” That is one reason why Congress gave vaccine manufacturers indemnification from lawsuits.

The United States is experiencing a form of mass hysteria that calls for forced vaccination, when there should continue to be legal options for controlling what drugs we use. Parents, especially Nation readers, should be concerned about losing the right to make informed vaccination decisions, especially if their children have already had serious reactions.

Steven Rubin, PhD
portola valley, calif.

Annie Sparrow Replies

As Steven Rubin concedes, passive-surveillance programs like VAERS demonstrate only that two events coincide—a vaccination and an “adverse event”—not that the one caused the other. By contrast, decades of active surveillance and rigorous follow-up provide overwhelming evidence that the measles vaccine, whether alone or in combination as the MMR vaccine, is safe.

It is important to look carefully at Rubin’s statement that “People suffer complications from vaccines quite often” and to examine his vague reference to “complications.” Minor side effects such as local swelling and redness at the injection site are indeed common, occurring at a rate of 17 to 30 per 100 doses of vaccine. Other mild reactions, such as a low-grade fever or swollen glands, are also common (5 to 10 per 100 doses) but, again, temporary and not serious. Serious side effects, such as high temperatures that sometimes lead to brief convulsions, are not common. On rare occasions, a skin rash of small, bruiselike spots may appear up to six weeks after vaccination. As a mother and a pediatrician, I understand how worrying these developments are for parents, but the child is fine afterward. Exhaustive studies show neither an increased risk for future illness nor any reason not to proceed with future vaccinations.

Anaphylaxis, the only life-threatening complication, is extremely rare (approximately one per 1 million vaccinations) and readily treated: In the United Kingdom between 1997 and 2003, there was a total of 130 reports of anaphylaxis following all vaccinations in that time period (about 117 million). All of these people survived.

In contrast, for unvaccinated children, serious complications from measles are common, can be permanent, and include death. One in 10 children who catch measles suffers an ear infection. One in 20 gets pneumonia, the most common cause of death. One in 1,000 gets acute-onset encephalitis, an illness that leaves at least half with permanent brain damage.

Vaccines are never 100 percent risk-free, but vaccinating children is much less risky than not vaccinating them. This is why I strongly encourage vaccination. The lack of understanding about these relative risks is what leads the public to be confused and certain misinformed groups to discourage vaccination. Unfortunately, it is children who suffer the fallout: those whose parents choose not to immunize them, babies too young to be immunized, and those who cannot be vaccinated due to a compromised immune system. A recent analysis of the available data published in The Journal of the American Medical Association indicates that “substandard vaccine compliance is likely to blame for the 2015 measles outbreak.”

As for the measles and MMR vaccines, there is no evidence, after four decades and millions of shots, linking them to permanent disability—whether autism or any other—or to death. To the contrary, these vaccines have saved millions of lives—over 15 million in this century alone—and prevented serious complications and permanent disability in millions more.

Annie Sparrow
new york