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BUENOS AIRES, May 12 2013 (IPS) - Argentina is one of the countries in Latin America with the highest levels of vaccination coverage. But experts are concerned about the growing campaign by vaccine critics against immunisation.
“Vaccines have saved as many lives as clean water. Risking not giving shots is like playing Russian roulette,” Dr. Carlota Russ, secretary of the Argentine Paediatric Society’s Committee on Infectious Diseases, told IPS.
Russ said that in industrialised countries, immunisation coverage is in decline as the culture of vaccination weakens, creating a risk of re-emergence of diseases that have already been controlled, like measles.
“Fortunately, in Argentina, the anti-vaccine movement is not strong,” she said.
However, when a case of refusal to vaccinate reaches the courts, the story has a great impact in the media and produces a wave of uncertainty that reaches even clinics and doctors’ offices, she said.
Well-informed, well-educated parents with small children are drawn in by theories alleging adverse effects from the inoculation of viruses, bacteria or toxic substances.
In 2012, the case of a couple who refused to vaccinate their child reached the Supreme Court, which ordered that the mandatory state immunisation plan be administered, “by force” if necessary, “for the greater good of the child and of public health.”
In an interview with IPS, paediatrician Eduardo Yahbes, of the Argentine Homeopathic Medical Association, said the family “had a poor legal defence,” and endorsed their right to refuse to have their child immunised.
Yahbes is one of the health professionals who contribute to the web site “Libre Vacunación” (Vaccination Freedom), which says that the idea that immunisation is safe and effective, or that it is the only means of preventing diseases, is a myth.
“Vaccines are not effective; the idea that infectious diseases have disappeared thanks to vaccines is a fraud,” said the paediatrician, a practitioner of alternative medicine.
Yahbes quoted a number of research studies that purportedly show the adverse effects of vaccines, and blamed “the hegemony of the dominant medical system that violates people’s human rights” by forcing them to receive medical treatments they do not want.
In Argentina the mandatory vaccination schedule included four vaccines in 1970, and now includes 16. According to the Pan American Health Organisation (PAHO), it is one of the most comprehensive protocols on the continent.
In addition to traditional vaccines like BCG (against tuberculosis) or the Sabin anti-polio vaccine, new ones, for example for preventing infection with human papilloma virus, which can cause cervical cancer, have been added in recent years.
Russ said vaccines are “essential to reduce the chances of contracting illnesses and their complications; they are mandatory because the burden of the illness justifies protection.”
She pointed to the re-emergence in Europe and the United States of cases of measles, while in Latin America there are only a few cases imported from other regions of the world.
“We are covered, but we must not lower our guard,” she said.
Russ acknowledged that “there are occasional adverse side effects, as with any medication. But they are so minimal that the use of vaccines is amply justified.”
She referred to the alleged link between autism and vaccines, reported by Yahbes in a 2011 article in the publication Homeopatía para Todos, of the Argentine Homeopathic Medical Association. Yahbes wrote that “vaccinations are regarded as a major factor in the development of this pathology (autism).”
Russ said the theory, which created a scare that was “disastrously harmful,” “was later shown to be untrue.” In 2010, the British scientific journal The Lancet, at the request of the General Medical Council (GMC) of the United Kingdom, retracted a paper by researcher Andrew Wakefield on the presumed link between the two, published in 1998.
Wakefield had postulated a link between the triple viral vaccine against measles, mumps and rubella (MMR), autism and gastrointestinal symptoms. After investigating, the GMC ruled that the scientist had acted “dishonestly and irresponsibly” in his research and banned him from practising medicine.
However, the rumours and scares proliferated, and won new converts in the field of alternative medicine. As a result, measles vaccination coverage in developed countries has fallen, leading to the re-emergence of diseases like measles and whooping cough.
In Argentina, the official schedule of vaccinations is legally binding and free of charge. Since 2009 immunisations have been a requirement for receiving the universal child allowance, a direct cash transfer to families with children.
The allowance is paid to families with parents who are unemployed or who work in the informal economy, with children under 18, or disabled dependants of any age, in exchange for regular school attendance, health checks and certified vaccinations.
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