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Flu epidemic reopens national debate on safety of vaccinations

Daily doses of news about the advancing spread of the H1N1 flu virus has added fuel to the national debate over how safe vaccinations are.

And what was considered to be a fringe movement advanced by conspiracy theorists and some Oprah Winfrey viewers now seems to be moving into the mainstream: vaccines cause autism.

Frank Knutson, a rural Hubbard County senior citizen, is firmly convinced mandatory vaccinations and flu inoculations are just around the corner. He claims they are "illegal and a threat" to public health.

He distributes a pamphlet called "The Poisoned Needle," published by the Lord's Covenant Church in Phoenix.

Among its conclusions:

-Vaccines have caused a myriad of diseases including cancer, diabetes and insanity;

-Vaccines lower resistance and invite most diseases;

-A government endorsed and financed health care system has "failed to control any of the killer diseases and doesn't have a sure cure for even one of the mild diseases."

Much of Knutson's literature is decades old. It was a 1998 study by British physician Andrew Wakefield in which the doctor pinpointed the alleged link between autism and vaccinations found in 12 patients that has caused the current furor.

"The scientific literature does not support the premise that the preservative in vaccine causes autism," said Hubbard County public health director Chris Broeker.

"There are some factions out there, some parent groups, some advocacy groups that feel completely the opposite of that and they say, 'We have evidence that shows x,'" Broeker said.

Among the proponents who espouse that theory is actress Jenny McCarthy, whose son has autism. She has made frequent appearances on "Oprah" to spread the anti-vaccine gospel and share her story.

"There are people that believe in it wholly and passionately," Broeker acknowledged.

"The party line is, and what the Department of Health and the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and all the people that work in immunization nationally tell us that's not an issue," Broeker said, adding, "It doesn't take away parents' real fears that it is an issue. The rate of autism has increased, kind of along with the number of vaccines kids get."

Broeker said autism, a brain development disorder that is usually manifested by repetitive behavior and impaired social interaction and communication, is a serious health threat that should not be minimized. It's a heart-wrenching diagnosis for families affected by the disorder, she said.

"It's important to continue to do research and evaluate it, but it needs to be done in a way that supports scientific methodology and not just because somebody knows of somebody whose child had a vaccine and two days later they showed autistic tendencies," she said.

Even the CDC has weighed in, publishing an official policy statement on the controversy.

"In early 2000, concerns were raised that thimerosal, a mercury-based preservative that had been used in some childhood vaccines, could cause autism," the CDC directors wrote.

"Numerous studies have found no association between thimerosal exposure and autism. Since thimerosal was removed from all U.S. childhood vaccines by 2002 (with the exception of the flu vaccine), we have not seen a decline in children being identified with autism, indicating that thimerosal is unlikely to be related to autism."

Broeker said there is a risk associated with all vaccines, including the new H1N1 serum that will come out this fall.

"There are people who are allergic to eggs, for example, and flu vaccine is grown in eggs so there are people who should not get vaccine because of allergy," she said.

Addressing Knutson's concerns, she said there is no plan on the horizon to make vaccinations or flu inoculations mandatory. She understands that the removal of "free choice" justifiably causes public concern, but not currently.

"There is not going to be a government mandate," she emphasized. "People will be making choices about that. At this point in time, unless there would be some sort of a worldwide tragedy in terms ... of an epidemic, I can't imagine it would be something we would make people get vaccinated" against.

She said people could make the choice to protect themselves or not.

The new vaccine is an unknown and may have a risk of side effects, she said.

But for practical reasons of availability, it will not be mandated. Health professionals are urging at-risk segments of the population such as pregnant women, children and adolescents, to get vaccinated against both the seasonal flu and the H1N1 strain.

And, she said NBC will air a documentary later this month called "A Dose of Controversy" that examines the issue of autism and vaccines.

NBC did not respond to a request of when the documentary would air, but Broeker believes it will be sometime in September.