The Austin Chronicle

To Your Health

By James Heffley, Ph.D., September 28, 2001, Columns

Q. I am concerned about the hepatitis vaccination now required for my child. Is this vaccination worth it?

A. The purpose of a vaccination is to teach the immune system to quickly identify the disease-causing organism. Although a fragment of a pathogenic organism can sometimes be used that will confer immunity, most vaccinations use either a weakened strain of the disease-causing organism or a close relative that does not cause the disease. As you can imagine, there are a very small number of individuals who cannot defeat even a weakened strain and then disease results.

Because of past legal requirements for certain vaccinations, Americans no longer live in dread of polio, smallpox, and a variety of other common diseases. Vaccinations still have a place in the preventive medicine field but there has always been a concern about their potential for harm. Enough concern has been generated to prompt Congress in 1986 to create the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act to compensate those who suffer damage from vaccinations. However, even better than compensation for injury would be averting the injury. Several nutrients are capable of this.

The easiest to obtain and least expensive nutrient for this purpose is vitamin C. Vaccination of children deficient in vitamin C can be more of a challenge than the child's immune system can rise to, with sometimes devastating results. Most American children, though not all, are able to withstand the series of vaccinations required by law. That is small comfort to those parents whose children were harmed in some way. For your own child, a modest vitamin C supplement of a few hundred milligrams (mg) per day during the month before a vaccination is scheduled will go a long way toward protecting him or her from unforeseen injury. Vitamin C powder makes it easy to provide this amount even to babies.

Vitamin A is another nutrient that has considerable impact on immune function. Like vitamin C, modest vitamin A supplements (averaging 4,000 IU per day) before a vaccination is due tend to ensure the proper response, which is called "seroconversion," to the vaccination. A word of caution regarding vitamin A: The supplement should be left off for a week before the vaccination. Children given very high vitamin A supplements on the same day of the vaccination failed to "seroconvert," apparently because the vitamin A killed off the vaccine before the immune system could react to it. Since vitamin A is a well-stored fat-soluble vitamin, it can be given once a week in a single capsule of 25,000 IU for three to four weeks, then left off a week before vaccination day.

Zinc, a close teammate of vitamin A, is also intimately involved with immune response. Zinc is a common deficiency in children, especially the "finicky eaters" who live on bread and pasta and disdain vegetables and meat. Zinc lozenges of about 10 mg each are tolerated by most children, and it is actually easier to convince zinc-deficient children to use lozenges, which can taste bitter, because loss of taste acuity is one of the symptoms of zinc deficiency.

A newly available option, called transfer factor, may also make vaccinations safer for your child. Transfer factor is a blend of several small proteins, harvested from the blood of healthy donors, that has been used for over 20 years as part of cancer therapy. It seems to temporarily "fill in the gaps" in the immune system’s armor, buying the time required for the child's own immune system to develop an adequate defense.

For decades the term "preventive medicine" was synonymous with "vaccinations." Fortunately there is now increasing interest in developing other avenues for preventing illnesses even beyond vaccination for common diseases, as well as in making vaccinations safer.

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