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Do vaccines harm or arm our babies?

As the number of vaccines being prescribed for infants grows, so do the doubts surrounding them, writes Labonita Ghosh.
A few days after Reggie Mathew's daughter was born, the proud parents took their little one for the first of her prescribed inoculations. Besides the routine vaccines, Mathew's paediatrician also recommended a new combination vaccine.
At Rs4,500 a dose, it would, the doctor said, protect the baby from pneumonia, meningitis and ear infections. Though Mathew (not his real name) wants the best for his little girl, he refused the new vaccine.
"It wasn't about the money," says the 40-year-old media professional. "The vaccine is new, so I don't know about its possible side and after effects. I don't want to discover, a few years later, that it has led to complications."
Let's face it � when it comes to the health of children, there can be no compromise. No limit to the amount of protection parents can, and would like to, provide. "I can't keep my child locked away from dirt and other children, or make sure she travels only in air-conditioned cars and never plays in the park," says dentist Rashmi Swali.
"But I feel more at ease knowing that, thanks to inoculation, she has a lesser chance of falling ill." Dr Nitin Shah, president of the Indian Academy of Paediatrics (IAP) says, "Vaccination is the best investment parents can make for their children. Our country's vaccination history has, on the whole, been a safe one, no matter what some people say."
But, like Mathew, there is a growing band of parents who are trying to find out more about infant immunisation and, literally, reduce the needle pricks their child has to suffer.
There are several groups abroad, like Parents Against Vaccination, which detail horror stories about inoculations gone wrong, like a British study that found the basic measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine to cause autism.
Parents should know this. By the time your child is five years old, he or she will have received between 13 and 20 vaccines, says Dr Shah, usually in combinations: a three-in-one for diphtheria, whooping cough and tetanus (DPT), an "easy five", which clubs the three-in-one with immunisation for hepatitis B and haemophilus influenza and more. So are we over-vaccinating our children?
Doctors are divided about this. "We certainly are," says Dr DK Taneja of the Department of Community Medicine at Maulana Azad Medical College, New Delhi. "By reintroducing so many immunogens into a child's body, we are not allowing his or her natural immune system to develop."
Vaccines, made up of dead and live viruses and some chemical preservatives, inhibit the body's natural and long-term ability to fight microbes. It can, thus, do exactly the opposite of what is intended. It can harm rather than arm.
According to Dr Parang Mehta, who runs a childcare institute in Surat, many vaccines are not essential, but people still opt for them, like the varicella vaccine for chicken pox and the hepatitis A shot. Vaccines for influenza and meningitis, on the other hand, are recommended only during epidemics.
"But parents will inoculate their child against chicken pox just so he or she doesn't miss school or have ugly marks on his or her face," says Dr Mehta. IAP, in its vaccination schedule, has now put some of these shots under its "additional" rather than "optional" category.
With cheaper Chinese and Korean-made vaccines available, parents need to be vigilant, adds Dr Mehta. In Delhi last month, IAP's infectious diseases chapter took up the matter of safeguards for new vaccines in the market.
But the panel could not come up with anything � private practitioners say only government agencies have the resources to test and OK new vaccines � apart from depending on the Food and Drugs Administration or Health Ministry clearances.
"We never push for additional vaccines," says Dr Prashant Moralwar, a Navi Mumbai paediatrician. "We tell parents about the pros and cons and leave the decision to them." That probably does not help a whole lot, given that few parents would want to gamble with their child's health.
"I'm not insisting on vaccines for hay fever and dengue for my five-year-old," adds Swali, "but I trust my doctor completely and never try to second-guess him."
One thing that could make Indian parents less needle-happy and dependent on doctors, is more information. And that, to both supporters and naysayers, would be more welcome.

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