I try to stay out of the whole vaccine debate, because, quite honestly, I can’t understand why it’s a debate at all. If your kids are able to be vaccinated, then they should be. That’s it. No child should have to die of a preventable illness, and really, no child should have to suffer through a preventable illness. When I find out that people I know have refused vaccinations for their children, I lose respect for them. I realize that some children are medically unable to be vaccinated due to allergies, an immuno-compromised state, or previous bad reactions. I am not addressing those parents, because those parents do not have a choice in the matter.
A few years ago, when Wildling was a baby, I was at one of Will’s work events, and one of his colleagues made her way over to me. “Melinda!” She announced, sitting down dramatically. “Did you know that there are some parents who refuse to vaccinate their children? Have you ever heard of such a thing?” She was about to become a mother herself, and had, apparently for the first time, come across some anti-vaxxers. I told her that not only had I heard of that, but I met some of them, and she was horrified. “In my country, women beg for vaccines for their children. We still have these diseases! What is wrong with people?” She, a medical doctor from South America, was astounded at the callous disregard that some American parents have for science and medicine.
I don’t blame her. I was surprised myself when I first heard that people could and would choose not to vaccinate. I think it took me less than thirty seconds of online research to see that people cited fear of autism, and another minute of research to see how thoroughly that claim had been debunked by actual scientists. But who wants to believe scientists these days? After all, they work for big pharma. Plus, don’t they make money off of illness? So they have no reason to want to cure disease (my conspiracy-theorist cousin uses this when he explains that there is a miracle cure for cancer, but evil scientists have been suppressing it for years so they can keep profiting off the cancer industry).
Some people cite the risks of vaccines because yes, there can be side effects. The worst ones are, fortunately, extremely rare. Both Wildliing and Mellow have been sore or have had mild fevers after vaccines, but that’s better than the diseases they prevent. When I had my Tdap booster last year, my arm hurt for a couple of days. Totally worth it – I’d rather have a sore shoulder than bring home whooping cough, especially when I had a too-young-to-be-immunized child. When Wildling was three and got a flu shot, she cried and screamed and limped so pitifully and dramatically you would have thought her femur had been snapped – until I told her if her leg hurt that badly then we weren’t going on our promised zoo trip, and she was magically and instantly cured.
I’m not minimizing all side effects. There are exceedingly rare cases in which someone has a severe and life-threatening reaction to a vaccine. Will has a friend who suffered from a severe reaction to a vaccine as a baby. As a consequence, she was unable to be vaccinated. She also, as a child, suffered from both whooping cough and measles (not at the same time). If you ask her about it, especially when she missed months of high school due to measles, she’ll tell you: vaccinate your kids. She would have greatly preferred to get a shot than to be so sick, and she doesn’t see why any parent would disagree.
I know a few anti-vaxxers. The most ridiculous one, by far, is an acquaintance who refuses to vaccinate because, while pregnant with her first child, she had a dream that her kid had a bad reaction. When I was pregnant with Wildling, I dreamt she was a boy and I ate a five-gallon bucket of cherries. I assure you, in my lifetime I have not consumed that many cherries, and Wildling is so far on the girl side of the gender spectrum that she has repeatedly suggested that Will either become a girl or live at work, so we can have an all-girl-only house. Pregnancy dreams should not dictate vaccination schedules. That same woman’s oldest child does have some developmental delays, so I can only assume that, had she vaccinated, she would have blamed the shots.
Another acquaintance spent awhile saying that it wasn’t that she wasn’t vaccinating, she was just on a delayed schedule (delayed meaning she chose not too but wasn’t brave enough to admit it). I tried to send her some scientific literature, and she very condescendingly informed me that there is bias on both sides of the issue, so she really couldn’t believe anything. This same person (who has no science or medical background, fyi) decided that she had done sufficient ‘research’ and had determined that vaccines are not nearly as effective as people think, they don’t actually reduce the spread of disease, and there are too many deadly side effects. At least she had the decency to acknowledge that her child was protected by the vaccinated children around her. And, surprise, she read a blogpost that changed her mind, around the time when she had a second baby and discovered the risk of her older child bringing whooping cough home and killing the newborn with it. She still doesn’t vaccinate for chicken pox though, because there are no long term effects of having that (ummm…good job on all your ‘research’ there, since you missed the SHINGLES connection!).
Speaking of chicken pox, I know several people who have not give their child the chicken pox vaccine because ‘I had it as a child, and it’s not so bad.’ Seriously, that’s their reasoning. I had chicken pox as a child too. So did two of my three brothers.
It was the summer of 1983. My mother was very heavily pregnant with Danny, who would be born that August. Ricky, who had just finished kindergarten, was the first to fall. He was down with the pox for two weeks. My very pregnant mother spent those two weeks nursing him back to health, while dealing with an active five-year-old (me) and a rambunctious two-and-a-half year old (Jack). Ricky recovered, and that very day, I fell ill. So now my very pregnant mother was dealing with a recently recovered and stir-crazy Ricky, an equally stir-crazy Jack, and me, with chicken pox. That lasted two weeks. Based on how this story is going, you can probably predict what happened literally the same day I recovered: Jack came down with chicken pox. My mother spent six weeks of the hot summer of ’83 cooped up in a house with one sick and two healthy kids (who desperately wanted to get out and go anywhere), meanwhile dealing with the last months of pregnancy with a giant baby (over ten pounds!). So it was not a good summer for anyone.
Yes, we all survived. Yes, we are all alive and healthy today. But that doesn’t mean that my kids should have to suffer too. I don’t want to spend two weeks nursing Wildling through chicken pox and preparing oatmeal baths for her and begging her not to scratch. I don’t want Mellow to have to suffer through an illness that can be prevented with a shot. I love my kids. Just because I survived having chicken pox doesn’t make it an easy and fun disease, and having had that experience, I don’t want my kids to have to go through the same. Plus, quite frankly, I don’t want to be like my mother, trapped dealing with chicken poxxy kids for weeks at a time.
I also don’t want my children to have the shingles virus living inside them. That’s a side effect of having had chicken pox, you know. It’s the same virus that causes shingles, and those shingles, which can be very painful, can erupt at anytime. Will had a friend who, while under extreme stress from medical school, ended up with shingles in her eye. She said it was excruciating. I know someone else, an elderly woman, who has died because of shingles two or three times (fortunately, always in the hospital while being treated, and she was, obviously, resuscitated).
I was involved in an on-line discussion with some friends recently, and one woman stated she doesn’t vaccinate and she’s ‘not scared of measles.’ That’s just dumb. You know why you don’t have to be scared of measles? Because the people around you are vaccinated. But keep hanging out with your anti-vax crowd, especially during this latest measles epidemic, and maybe measles will make you afraid. Will you be scared of measles when you are watching your child suffer and hoping that she doesn’t develop encephalitis and die? Will it scare you then? Or are going to be one of those people who claims that because you give your child healthy organic foods, then their immune systems will be strong enough to protect them anyway?
I’ve heard the argument that people in the United States don’t die of measles because of our clean water and good hygiene, so what is deadly in the third world is just a minor nuisance here. Except that’s misleading. If people aren’t dying of measles here anymore, it’s because we have so many fewer cases and we are lucky. According to the CDC, in 2014 there were only 644 cases of measles in the US. Zero out 644 is good. But what happens when that 644 goes up? According to an actual study done by actual scientists, published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Infectious Diseases, from 1987-2000, the death rate was 3 in a thousand. This is in the United States. I doubt our hygiene standards have changed so substantially in the last 15 years so as to eliminate the risk.
I think, as adults, we have the right to decide for ourselves what risks we take, as long as they don’t harm others. If I want to drink a gallon of wine, that’s fine, I’m bearing the risk of death by alcohol poisoning. I don’t get to drink a gallon of wine and then drive a car – because then I am putting others at risk. Deciding not to vaccinate is similarly a decision that harms others. And who suffers? The children and the immuno-compromised who are dependent on herd immunity for protection. If i didn’t vaccinate my kids and they had whooping cough or measles, then my children, who had no choice in the matter, are suffering for my decision. If I decide not to vaccinate my kids and they get rubella and spread it to a pregnant woman who then has a severely disabled child, it is that child who suffers, not me. If I decide not to vaccinate and Wildling is exposed to measles and goes to school, now that classmate of her who recently survived leukemia is in serious, life-threatening danger.
The choices we make have the power to harm others. Selfishly relying on herd immunity and hand washing to prevent deadly diseases creates societal risk. I strongly believe that because I live in a civilized society and I care about other members of that society, vaccination is the only moral and ethical choice.