A Nevada doctor presented controversial new evidence yesterday suggesting that baby shots to protect against whooping cough and other diseases may be a hidden cause of some cases of infant crib death.
His report was challenged quickly by other scientists, however. And a preliminary release of a larger and more complete government study currently under way appeared to refute the Nevada study, finding no relationship between the time of immunization and sudden death in infants.
A scientific debate on the subject immediately erupted yesterday at the American Academy of Neurology meeting here. But both sides agreed that the preliminary results should not lead parents to discontinue shots against DPT (diptheria, pertussis or whooping cough, and tetanus) because of the greater risks of death and disability posed by the childhood diseases.
Dr. William Torch of the University of Nevada School of Medicine at Reno raised the issue before a crowded gathering of experts on the nervous system with his report on the results of a study of 103 cases of sudden infant death syndrome.
He found that two-thirds of the children had received DPT immunizations in the three weeks prior to their deaths. Many of them died within a day after getting a shot. He maintained that this was not a matter of mere coincidence and concluded that a "causal relationship is suggested" in at least some cases of crib death affecting young infants.
But a more extensive study under way at the National Institutes of Health, which will be more fully reported at an upcoming scientific meeting, reaches the opposite conclusion. Dr. Eileen Hasselmyer gave a preview of the results, saying that they "do not suggest an association between time of DPT innoculation and sudden infant death."
Unlike the Torch study, which looked back only at sudden infant death cases, the NIH study looked at both the victims of crib death and a control group of living children, allowing researchers to compare the two groups.
Hasselmyer said that a preliminary analysis found that fewer children who died had been innoculated for DPT than in the healthy control group. While only 38 percent of 380 crib death cases had ever been innoculated for DPT, 57 percent of the control group had.
Torch later acknowledged that the design of his study made it difficult to make any "definite conclusions" about the cause of crib death and the NIH study design was "preferable." He cautioned that "vaccinations should continue" unless there is more definitive evidence of harm.
Other doctors, concerned that publicity about Torch's findings might lead alarmed parents to give up needed shots, attacked the study. Dr. Gerald Fenichel of Vanderbilt University complained that the DPT shots had been blamed for "almost everything" and said it was just as possible to relate crib death to wearing diapers.
Crib death, or SIDS, is a mysterious cause of death in more than 10,000 babies under six months of age in the United States each year. Over the years, a number of possible causes have been suggested, but most have been disputed.
DPT vaccinations, which are generally recommended at 2, 4, 6 and 18 months of age, have been linked in earlier reports with SIDS, including four victims in Tennessee in 1978 who had received the shots in the 24 hours before their deaths.