A word or two about vaccinations

A few weeks ago I taped some footage for a Momversation about vaccinations, and yesterday it went live:

Here I willingly admit to not understanding parents who choose not to vaccinate their children, an opinion that is now as controversial as refusing vaccinations used to be, and I will admit that this is a bit of a misleading and unfair statement, something I will further explain in a minute.

Thing is, I didn’t always feel this way. In fact, my opinion about the choice to vaccinate your child used to look much like my opinion about most other parenting decisions (breastfeeding, co-sleeping, homeschooling, etc) in that I think you have to figure out what works best for you and your children and ignore all the people who are screaming at you that you’re doing it wrong.

But let me back up a second… when Leta was born five years ago I had very few friends who were mothers and wasn’t participating in any sort of parenting communities online. All of the mothers I did know had vaccinated their children with no lasting side-effects, and my pediatrician, a man who had vaccinated all eight of his children, talked me through what it all meant and assured me it was in Leta’s best interest to have her vaccinated. I had heard stories about certain parents refusing vaccinations, but at the time their concerns were not about autism or side-effects but about fears of a government conspiracy, something I did not take seriously.

Things have dramatically changed in the last five years, and there is now so much more information available to parents about vaccinations, information and warnings and horror stories. And in these years I have listened to many women talk convincingly about how their children developed symptoms of autism in close proximity to the time they were administered certain vaccinations. And then there were the women whose children suffered terrible fevers and rashes and sometimes seizures. This naturally raised some questions for me, and for a time I could totally see why someone would choose not to vaccinate her chid.

I can still identify with these concerns.

However, the issue totally changed for me when news broke last year of a measles outbreak in Southern California that occurred because a seven-year-old boy who had not been vaccinated brought the disease back to the states from Switzerland:

The boy’s measles immunoglobulin M (IgM) positive laboratory test result was reported to the county health department on February 1, 2008. During January 31–February 19, a total of 11 additional measles cases in unvaccinated infants and children aged 10 months–9 years were identified. These 11 cases included both of the index patient’s siblings, five children in his school, and four additional children who had been in the pediatrician’s office on January 25 at the same time as the index patient. Among these latter four patients, three were infants aged <12 months. One of the three infants was hospitalized for 2 days for dehydration; another infant traveled by airplane to Hawaii on February 9 while infectious... ... Overall, approximately 70 children exposed to children with measles in the school, a day care center, the pediatrician's office, and other community settings were placed under voluntary home quarantine because their parents either declined measles vaccination or they were too young to be vaccinated.

And I put myself in the position of the mother of that ten-month-old baby who caught the disease because they happened to be at the doctor’s office at the same time as the infected boy. A ten-month-old baby whose immune system is such that there is a possibility of death. And I realized, I do not think that I would ever be able to forgive the parents of that infected boy. That is my raw, honest emotion toward that scenario.

That our children do not have to fear death from diseases like measles or polio or whooping cough is a miracle made possible by modern technology and science. And I guess the crux of this really complex problem for me is that as the number of parents who choose not to vaccinate their children increases so does the likelihood that these diseases will become a problem again. If you’ve decided that the risks are too great to vaccinate your child then you are counting on the rest of us who are willing to take those risks to decrease the chances that your child will be exposed to these diseases. You are counting on us. Maybe what I don’t understand (in reference to my statement in the video) is the act of and willingness to give up that control. The choice to refuse vaccinations just seems to me to be a first world luxury.

In some of the footage that got cut from the final video I talk about how the standard vaccination schedule can seem very aggressive, and I totally understand and support families who want to work with their doctors to modify that schedule (you can read one mother’s level-headed and articulate experience with that here). And I know of and support mothers who have had to change pediatricians who were unwilling to take their concerns about the schedule seriously. I understand that some children are allergic to certain ingredients in some vaccinations and this prevents them from receiving them. Which is why I think it’s crucial to maintain what I’ve heard referred to as herd immunity so that those who really have no choice, who cannot receive vaccinations, are protected by those of us who can.

Perhaps by phrasing my opinion as, “I don’t understand parents who don’t vaccinate their children,” I am misrepresenting my stance, and I will blame that on the fact that I had to film footage in the five minutes I could wedge into a packed SXSW schedule on a Monday afternoon a few weeks ago. Because what I’m really feeling is an unease, one that is directly proportional to the unease that causes certain parents to refuse vaccinations, an unease at what might logically happen if more and more parents refuse vaccinations, even if that refusal is well researched.

I know many of you disagree with me and that I risk some of you feeling alienated by even bringing up this topic. And I’d love to hear from you because I don’t think that any of the unease on either side can be addressed or alleviated until we start communicating with each other in a tone that suggests we really want the same thing: health and safety for all of our children.