Maryland state health department officials say they have no plans to change regulations affecting the controversial whooping cough vaccine, part of the DPT triple vaccine now mandatory for all school-age children. The vaccine has come under national scrutiny since a recent television report outlined dangerous side effects associated with the pertussis (whooping cough) portion of the immunization.
Dr. John L. Pitts, director of the state health department's Preventive Health Administration, told a General Assembly committee last week that without the vaccine--which protects children against diphtheria, pertussis (whooping cough) and tetanus--epidemics could occur. He said that reports of the vaccine's side effects were imbalanced and one-sided. Pitts said whooping cough outbreaks occurred in Japan and the United Kingdom after those two countries ended their mandatory vaccine programs.
Pitts, who addressed the House Environmental Affairs Committee, said the number of reported whooping cough cases fell from 3,000 in the 1920s to around 20 in the 1970s, and one last year, since the use of the vaccine has become commonplace.
It was not until the General Assembly enacted mandatory immunization regulations in 1972, Pitts continued, that the state became close to 100 percent free of whooping cough and other preventable diseases of childhood.
"This level of achievement was not possible through voluntary compliance," Pitts warned the committee. Most states have similar mandatory immunization programs that include a series of five shots. In Maryland, a child can be exempt from the shots if a physician certifies that the child has had a serious reaction to the inoculation or is a member of a religious group that prohibits immunization.
Two state delegates, Jerry H. Hyatt (D-Montgomery) and Charles E. Smith (D-Frederick), requested the information hearing after receiving calls from constituents concerned about the vaccine after viewing the WRC-TV documentary, "DPT: Vaccine Roulette." The program, which was aired three times locally and excerpted on NBC's Today show, showed children who had been severely brain damaged by the shots and included a debate by experts on the safety of the vaccine.
According to state immunization coordinator Robert Longenecker, only 143 of the 190,000 children in Maryland who were inoculated in public health clinics over the past four years reported adverse reactions to the vaccine and 24 of those were considered serious. No child in that number, Longenecker said, reported permanent physical or neurological damage.
Longenecker said serious side effects include fevers over 105 degrees, prolonged, high-pitched crying, convulsions and seizures.
A number of parents who testified at the hearing, including representatives from a 350-member organization called DPT--Dissatisfied Parents Together--urged study for a safer vaccine. They also asked for more complete briefings for parents on the side effects of pertussis immunization so that if a child exhibits one of the several serious reactions the physician could be requested to exempt the child from further shots.
" Many children were wrongfully given further injections of pertussis vaccine because parents, and in some cases physicians, were ignorant. . . . Did these children, like soldiers in a war, give their lives so that others might live?" asked Rockville resident Gerrie Cohn, who said her daughter Traci, now 13, suffered severe retardation after receiving the shots. Cohn, who said that a neurologist has since told her that her daughter's early development and birth apppeared normal and that something must have happened when the child was three or four months olds, testified that her daughter had a fever of 106 degrees and screamed uncontrollably for three days and three nights after being immunized when she was nearly four months old.
Del. Charles Blumenthal (D-Prince George's) confirmed after the hearing that he planned to introduce legislation in the General Assembly next year that would make the vaccine voluntary and require the state to compensate victims.