If two dozen once-jittery mice at UBC are telling the truth postmortem, the world's governments may soon be facing one hell of a lawsuit. New, so-far-unpublished research led by Vancouver neuroscientist Chris Shaw shows a link between the aluminum hydroxide used in vaccines, and symptoms associated with Parkinson's, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, or Lou Gehrig's disease), and Alzheimer's.
Shaw is most surprised that the research for his paper hadn't been done before. For 80 years, doctors have injected patients with aluminum hydroxide, he said, an adjuvant that stimulates immune response.
"This is suspicious," he told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview from his lab near Heather Street and West 12th Avenue. "Either this [link] is known by industry and it was never made public, or industry was never made to do these studies by Health Canada. I'm not sure which is scarier."
Similar adjuvants are used in the following vaccines, according to Shaw's paper: hepatitis A and B, and the Pentacel cocktail, which vaccinates against diphtheria, pertussis, tetanus, polio, and a type of meningitis.
To test the link theory, Shaw and his four-scientist team from UBC and Louisiana State University injected mice with the anthrax vaccine developed for the first Gulf War. Because Gulf War Syndrome looks a lot like ALS, Shaw explained, the neuroscientists had a chance to isolate a possible cause. All deployed troops were vaccinated with an aluminum hydroxide compound. Vaccinated troops who were not deployed to the Gulf developed similar symptoms at a similar rate, according to Shaw.
After 20 weeks studying the mice, the team found statistically significant increases in anxiety (38 percent); memory deficits (41 times the errors as in the sample group); and an allergic skin reaction (20 percent). Tissue samples after the mice were "sacrificed" showed neurological cells were dying. Inside the mice's brains, in a part that controls movement, 35 percent of the cells were destroying themselves.
"No one in my lab wants to get vaccinated," he said. "This totally creeped us out. We weren't out there to poke holes in vaccines. But all of a sudden, oh my God-we've got neuron death!"
At the end of the paper, Shaw warns that "whether the risk of protection from a dreaded disease outweighs the risk of toxicity is a question that demands our urgent attention."
He's not the only one considering that.
The charge that there's a sinister side to magic bullets isn't new. With his pen blazing, celebrity journalist Robert F. Kennedy Jr. popularized vaccine scepticism with his article arguing that mercury in vaccines causes autism, which ran in the June 2005 Rolling Stone and on-line at Salon.com. So did last year's vaccines-linked-to- autism bestseller, Evidence of Harm by David Kirby (St. Martin's Press). But there's a potential public-health cost to all the controversy, according to the B.C. Centre for Disease Control.
"Vaccines have been a victim of their own success," spokesperson Ian Roe told the Straight in a telephone interview from Ottawa. Diseases such as polio, which killed his father-in-law, are almost eradicated and therefore no longer serve as a warning to parents. But the epidemic threat is still real. "If everyone decided to not get vaccinated, we'd live in a very different world."
Canada's last national immunization conference, in December 2004, heard a report that vaccine coverage is sometimes low. For diphtheria, the Public Health Agency of Canada found that just 75 percent of two-year-olds are immunized; the target is 99 percent. For tetanus, just 66 percent of 17-year-olds are immunized, compared to a target of 97 percent.
Dr. Ronald Gold, the former head of the infectious-disease division at Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children, told the conference that "we will never be without an anti-vaccine movement," but "in reality, there is no scientific evidence for these myths."
Shaw acknowledges that there's a lot of pressure on parents to vaccinate their children. "You're considered to be a really bad parent if you don't vaccinate," he said-and your child can't attend public school. "But I don't think the safety of vaccines is demarcated. How does a parent make a decision based on what's available? You can't make an intelligent decision."
Conservatively, he said, if one percent of vaccinated humans develop ALS from vaccine adjuvants, it would still constitute a health emergency.
It's possible, he said, that there are 10,000 studies that show aluminum hydroxide is safe for injections. But he hasn't been able to find any that look beyond the first few weeks of injection. If anyone has a study that shows something different, he said, please "put it on the table. That's how you do science."
Neuroscience research is difficult, Shaw said, because symptoms can take years to manifest, so it's hard to prove what caused the symptoms.
"To me, that calls for better testing, not blind faith."
He pointed out that George W. Bush passed legislation that opens the door for the USA to order a nationwide anthrax immunization campaign, with the threat of bioterrorism.
Shaw's paper is currently undergoing a peer review.