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Calling the Shots

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At 7 months he was talking. As a toddler, he was speaking in full sentences and learning the alphabet. By all accounts, Chris Fisher was an alert and healthy child. “He was a happy boy,” says his mother, Barbara Loe Fisher. That changed in 1980, when Chris, then 2, received his fourth DPT vaccine for diphtheria, pertussis (whooping cough) and typhoid. He soon developed chronic earaches and respiratory infections. After Fisher and her son visited numerous specialists, Fisher says, doctors found no cause for his sudden change and told her to “take Chris home and love him because he was never going to get any better.”

It wasn’t until mid-1982 that Fisher felt closer to solving the mystery of her son’s decline. While washing dishes at home in Alexandria, Va., she heard a TV report about the possible dangers of the DPT vaccine. “I thought, ‘My God, could this be what happened to Chris?’ ” says Fisher, who cannot document that the vaccine caused Chris’s physical ailments or the learning disabilities that were later diagnosed. “I called the station and begged them to tell me if other parents were calling.”

They were. Within months, Fisher, now 52, and other concerned parents formed the nonprofit National Vaccine Information Center to educate the public about the potential dangers of some vaccines. Their concerns were underscored last month, when a federal health panel reversed its position on giving infants the rotavirus vaccine that guards against severe diarrhea. Tests showed that the shot was linked to a potentially fatal bowel condition.

Fisher, who cowrote the 1985 book A Shot in the Dark about the dangers of vaccines and who sits on several government health committees, is also currently pushing for reforms of a 1986 law that compensates parents of children harmed by vaccines. Though $1 billion has been paid out to families whose children suffered such side effects as retardation and attention-deficit disorder, she argues that reviews take too long and many cases are turned away without an adequate hearing. “Vaccine safety is an emotionally charged area,” says Peter Meyers, director of the Vaccine Injury Clinic at George Washington Law School. “But she has done a lot to alert the public without trying to scare people.”

More than 20 million children are vaccinated each year, and in 1998 officials received about 11,000 complaints of reactions leading to hospitalization, disability or death. Experts such as Ben Schwartz, deputy director of the Centers for Disease Control’s National Immunization Program, say taking the remote risk is necessary and note that vaccines are constantly being evaluated. Even with newer shots, he says, “we need to balance the public health impact against the need to assure the vaccine is safe before it is licensed.”

Despite what happened to Chris, Fisher had her two younger children (Ryan, 16, and Jessica, 12) vaccinated against several diseases. But she opposes “a one size fits all” approach, arguing that the needs of each child should be evaluated. For instance, she says, since hepatitis B is generally spread by sexual contact or infected needles, few children should receive that vaccine. “Most parents want what is best for their children,” she says, “and that may not mean vaccinating them.”

Born an Army brat to Lt. Col. Robert Loe and Mayo Clinic nurse Adah Sahr, Fisher has paid a personal price for the dedication to her cause. She says her second marriage (her first, a college romance, ended in 1973) crumbled under the pressure of Chris’s disabilities. “Things were just never the same,” says Fisher. In 1994, she married Walter, 56, a defense industry employee with whom she shares a townhouse in Washington’s Capitol Hill area.

As for Chris, now 21, he went through a rocky time in his teens, frustrated by his own limitations. “Growing up isn’t easy, and the disabilities just added gasoline to the fire,” says Chris, who attends Northern Virginia Community College. Still, he is not bitter. “When I see autistic or severely retarded children, I think, ‘There but for the grace of God….’ ” Fisher takes pride in his comment: “He has gone from being angry to being philosophical.”

Nick Charles

Rochelle Jones in Washington, D.C.