After several recent outbreaks of measles in the United States, the anti-vaccination movement has gotten renewed attention, much of which paints “anti-vaxxers” as either ignorant of basic science or sociologically indulgent, willing to coast on the high vaccination rates of others. I have found neither to be true.
Choosing whether and when to vaccinate my first child, as well as what vaccines to give him, was not simple for me. Reading everything I could find, I learned that (until 1995) the vaccination schedule in Japan, hardly a backward country, began not at birth, but at the age of 2.
With the exception of Haemophilus influenzae Type b, which is most harmful to children under the age of 5, I began vaccinating my son when he turned 1. By then, his immune system had developed and as an exclusively breast-fed baby for nine months, he benefited from my immunity.
It was the mid-'90s and I was hardly alone in seeking accurate information, since there were many legitimate concerns. The vaccine for DPT (diphtheria/pertussis/tetanus), for instance, was often cited as being mixed in impure solutions. My son’s pediatrician confirmed this for me when we met to begin vaccinating him. She told me that Massachusetts, where we lived, had created its own batch of DPT, available only in that state, to avoid using the "dirty" batches found in the rest of the country.
However, the same pediatrician was incredulous when I insisted upon giving my son the killed polio vaccine because it was possible, albeit a very small risk, to contract polio from the live vaccine.
“You have to give the live vaccine in the first dose because it has to go through the gut, which is how the disease enters the body,” she told me. When I mentioned that diphtheria was also contracted through the gut but its vaccine is a shot in the arm, she had no response. I stuck to my guns and four years later, the United States abandoned the use of live polio vaccines.
In 1998, a vaccine for rotavirus was introduced and recommended by the American Academy of Pediatricians for all infants. It was pulled the next year when several children required surgery for intestinal blockages directly linked to the vaccine. It was eventually reintroduced in 2006, which means it took seven years of research to resolve the issues with a vaccine that for one year had been recommended for all infants in the United States.
And then there was the thimerosal controversy. A derivative of mercury, which is highly toxic in certain formulations, thimerosal was still abundantly used to preserve vaccines in the '90s.
At the same time, autism spectrum disorder (ASD), a diagnosis that was rare in my childhood, became much more common. So significant was the increase of ASD and Asperger’s (which is now seen as part of the autism spectrum) it seemed implausible to think the increase was simply due to improved methods of diagnosis.
Thus, as someone who bore children in the 1990s and early 2000s, it’s not surprising to me that parents were susceptible to claims connecting thimerosal in vaccines to autism. Eventually, in 2011, an article in the British Journal of Medicine thoroughly discredited any connection between the two. But by then my firstborn was 17 years old.
He is now 25, and many issues with vaccines have been resolved. This may be due in part to the fact that a small percentage of the population began opting out, thereby putting governmental light on their concerns, whether confirmed, as with the problems of polio and rotavirus vaccines, or not, as in the suspected connection of thimerosal and autism. Consider the following:
None of today’s vaccines come with the risk of developing the disease for which the vaccine is being given, as was the case with live polio.
Since 2001, thimerosal has been removed or greatly reduced in nearly all vaccines.
With cleaner, safer vaccines, the collective benefit of herd immunity, or the resistance to and eventual demise of diseases due to widespread vaccination, deserves strong advocacy.
Medical anthropologist Elisa Sobo has studied what she calls “vaccination hesitancy” and she’s found that parents who hesitate to vaccinate are not “looney-tunes, crazy people … They’re really smart people, and they're highly, highly educated.”
Medicine is not the immutable science many believe it to be. In my lifetime, hormone replacement therapy was given to nearly all menopausal women until a study linked it to breast cancer.
Valium and Prozac were hailed as effective in treating depression and mood disorders — until it was determined they were being overprescribed, often with unpleasant side effects, including addiction.
The same is now notoriously known about opioids. Purdue Pharma, the manufacturer of OxyContin, is embroiled in several lawsuits, accused of telling doctors that opioids were not addictive, when they knew the opposite to be true.
Once upon a time, doctors enjoyed broad deference. Who hasn’t had an elder relative who never questioned what her doctor told her to do or take? Today, however, more people are educated and rightfully apply critical thinking to important matters such as what to put in their bodies.
I hope that pertussis, measles and mumps can go the way of smallpox, which has been eradicated through vaccination. (The same would be true of polio, but extremists in parts of the Middle East have gone so far as to murder health workers in order to prevent the administration of the polio vaccine.)
Doing so requires convincing vaccination hesitaters that today’s vaccines are safe. And according to Sobo, “people are very ready to listen — if they're heard. If you listen to them, and you allow them to say what they think without feeling judged, without pushing them into a corner, they're absolutely ready.”
When I insisted upon killed polio for my firstborn, his pediatrician discounted my perspective and knowledge.
Contrast that with our current pediatrician, Stacey Memberg. Dr. Memberg is an M.D. with a Ph.D. in neuroscience who has a 14-year-old daughter with Down syndrome. Suppressed immune systems are common in people with Down syndrome, and I openly discussed my concerns with her.
“Research shows that not only do vaccines given on schedule help prevent the intended illnesses,” Dr. Memberg told me on our first visit, “they also strengthen the immune systems in people with DS.”
Speaking to me like an intelligent person and responding to my concerns with facts, Dr. Memberg easily convinced me to fully vaccinate Lyra on time. As the old saying goes, honey is far more successful in catching bees than vinegar.
Contact Holly Christensen at email@example.com.