Tonight, while enjoying a nice dinner, I got a call from the director of my son’s preschool. She was calling to tell me that they had made the decision to put my son in a different class because two children in the class he was supposed to be in have “opted out” of their vaccines. This may not sound like a big thing. He is still in the Tuesday-Thursday class, and since he doesn’t start school until next Tuesday, it’s not like he has to get readjusted to a whole new class. No harm, no foul. Actually, this is a big deal–a very big deal. You see, my son is immunocompromised. He has cancer. He was fully vaccinated and supporting the whole “herd immunity” thing before his cancer diagnosis, but that darn chemo wiped out his immunity to the communicable diseases against which he had already been vaccinated.
So, parents who choose to not vaccinate because you feel it’s the “right choice for your family”, I would like to thank you. Thank you for adding yet another worry to my plate and my husband’s plate. You see, we already worry about a lot–it’s an unfortunate part of your child having cancer–you worry every night. On top of worrying about things like relapse, organ toxicity brought on by chemo, debilitating late effects of chemo, secondary cancers brought on by chemo, the mental effects of having more than three years of painful treatment, we now get to worry about, of all things, measles. And mumps. And whooping cough. And chicken pox.
Let me explain something about having a child with cancer to you: everything is robbed from your child in some form or another. Friends, Halloween, Christmas, play dates, school. It’s all taken away at some point or another and in some form or another because we have to protect our children from germs, because if they catch the wrong germs during the worst part of treatment, they can die. My son was isolated from everyone except immediate family for an entire year. For parents whose children are going through chemo, the decision to send them to school is a momentous one. It requires a leap of faith and trust in the surrounding community, in your child’s teachers and administrators, and in the families sending their children to school. It requires herd immunity. Now, even though my son is now in a different class than your unvaccinated children, I get to worry about him using the communal bathroom, the playground, and even walking around the halls with them. If there is an outbreak of measles in, say, Austin this winter, I won’t know if you have relatives in Austin and went to go see those relatives for Uncle Bobby’s birthday. I won’t know if your child was exposed to measles at the Austin Chuck-E-Cheese and then showed up at school on Tuesday. Oh, I’m sure you’ll do your due diligence and call the school to inform everyone that your child has come down with a case of the measles once it appears, but, the damage is done–the exposure to my immunocompromised child has already happened. It’s too late. Your choice just earned him a ticket to the hospital. Your choice just earned him a lot of shots and more toxic drugs in the desperate effort to stave off whatever disease your unvaccinated child passed to him. If, God forbid, he does come down with that disease, your choice just earned him a trip to the Pediatric ICU for a while–days, maybe weeks. Your choice may cost us our son. Who knows–it depends on how his already stressed body handles everything.
People like to say that in choosing to not vaccinate, they are making the “best choice for their family”, and that, after all, their children are the ones at risk, not other people’s children. No, sorry, you’re wrong. Choosing to home school is a choice that is made in the best interest of a family–it impacts nobody but your family. Choosing to eat all organic and locally grown food is a choice that impacts nobody but your family. For that matter, choosing to eat nothing but fast food and frozen meals is a choice that impacts nobody but your family. Choosing to not vaccinate impacts my family and my immunocompromised son. It impacts the teacher who is pregnant and teaching your non-vaccinated child. It impacts the man going through chemo who happened to be behind you in the grocery store when your unvaccinated child sneezed. It impacts the mom next to you at the pick up line at school who is on immunosuppressive drugs for her rheumatoid arthritis and who is bending down to hug her child just as your unvaccinated child coughs. Your “choice” has repercussions for your community.
Part of the cost of living in a first world country is that you have to do things that support the community in which you live. You pay taxes to pay for the police that respond to your 911 calls, to pay for the teachers who teach your children, and to pay for roads to be plowed and paved. You obey traffic laws to ensure an orderly flow of traffic. You don’t shout “fire” in a crowded theater because to do so would cause pandemonium and chaos. Sometimes, to live in a place with the privileges we enjoy here in America, you suck it up and do things you don’t want to do because it’s for the communal good. If everyone chose otherwise, we would not be a first world country. We would be a country without laws, roads, and schools. We would be a country overrun with disease. Your responsibility to your community is to vaccinate your child. The number of people who actually, literally, physically can’t have vaccines is extraordinarily small. The number of people who choose to not vaccinate is not–it’s growing. These people cite a vague unease about the number of vaccines a child gets or statistics they learned from Internet memes on autism. They confess conspiracy theories about Big Pharma and how it’s all a ploy to get doctors and pharmacists rich. They share anecdotes of a college friend’s neighbor’s son who got so sick from his vaccine he was hospitalized. They say their child got incredibly sick from the one round of vaccines he or she got at his 2 month visit, and they said they’re not vaccinating anymore. Guess what–if your child is sitting here today, talking, walking, eating, laughing, playing, and learning, he or she wasn’t that ill from the vaccine. He or she got a fever and reacted to the vaccine–it doesn’t mean they had an “adverse” reaction.
I am horrified, non-vaxxers, that you are so quick to forget the lessons of history. You’re spoiled and selfish because you have never seen the horrors of a society in which vaccines are not available. Perhaps you should talk to my mother about her neighbor growing up–the one who contracted German measles while pregnant with her third child. That third child was born deaf and with brain damage, thanks to his mother catching that communicable–and now preventable–disease while pregnant. Perhaps you should talk to anyone over the age of 60 about what it was like when polio was around–how nobody was allowed to go swimming or use public drinking fountains for fear of catching that dreaded–and now preventable–disease. Perhaps you should talk to the parents of a child with cancer whose daughter spent a month in the Pediatric ICU during treatment because she caught chicken pox–a preventable disease–from an unvaccinated classmate. Perhaps you should take a trip to a third world country and explain to them why they should not be lining up in droves to get their children vaccinated by the Red Cross or other relief organizations. Perhaps, better yet, you should keep your children out of school.
Before I start this little spiel, I need you all to know: I’m not hating on people who don’t vaccinate their kids, and while I know for a fact BASED ON facts that vaccines don’t cause autism or other “defects”, I’m all for continuing research to make them even better and safer.
But you know what really, really scares me about the anti-vax movement? As a future Public Health Professional, the thing that scares me most about this is the fact that our cultural mindset has become so CHILL about vaccine-preventable/”childhood” diseases that there is even room for such a movement. Let me explain.
Do y’all know what an R0 is? The R-naught, as it is called, is the basic reproduction rate of a disease. It tells you how many new infections can come from one existing infection. For example, an R-naught of 3 (R3) means that, on average, one sick person will infect three other people. Every disease has an R-naught, some greater and some lesser.
Do you remember when everyone was freaking out about Ebola? Everyone was terrified of catching it, because it’s SOOOOO contagious and deadly, right? Ebola has an R-naught of 2. That’s it. R2. One person with Ebola, on average, will get 2 more people sick. And we were freaking out about that.
Well guess what? Measles is the most contagious disease known to mankind, and it has an R-naught of 18. 18.One person with measles will give it to 18 new people, and those people will give it to 18 new people EACH, and so on. That’s what happened with the Disneyland outbreak; it’s so ridiculously contagious that just ONE sick child was enough to start an epidemic.
And yet very few people are as scared of measles as they are of Ebola. Why is that? One reason could be the nature of the disease, sure; Ebola is terrifying in its progression and symptoms. But I would suggest that a major reason is that measles has been so well-contained by vaccination that people no longer fear it. It’s not a part of every-day life anymore; this disease is no big deal because nobody gets it, because so many people are vaccinated against it. Let’s put this another way.
What are the diseases that scare everyone the most: Ebola, HIV/AIDS, and SARS are pretty high on the list of terror diseases. But let’s look at the R0s, shall we: Ebola-R2. HIV/AIDS-R5. SARS-R5.
Now let’s look at diseases that people are voluntarily rejecting vaccinations against: Measles, Pertussis, and Diphtheria are the major ones. Their R0s? Measles-R18. Pertussis-R17. Diptheria-R7.
Everyone focuses on the former set of diseases– rightly so, I suppose– because they’re more dangerous at the present time. What makes them more dangerous? Not their R0; it’s the fact that there is no viable treatment, and NO VACCINE. Seriously, that’s why the medical community is worried about them. There’s no way to treat or PREVENT their spread biologically. Well guess what? There’s no viable treatment for Measles or Pertussis, and only limited treatment options for Diphtheria. That’s why the medical community doesn’t focus on them as much, because we can prevent them at the biological level, safely and effectively.
But now that the Anti-Vax movement has taken hold so firmly, the medical community is now being forced to once more worry about diseases it had almost eradicated. And not only that, it’s endangering herd immunity for the people who can’t receive their own vaccines due to compromised immune systems. I’m allergic to eggs, so I can’t receive the flu shot, but I’m also asthmatic so I can’t get the inhaled vaccine. I rely entirely on the people I associate with to keep me safe from the flu by getting their yearly shot. This made public school a living nightmare, because almost NOBODY got their shot. They caught it, and while it didn’t affect them TOO terribly because they were generally healthy, when I caught it, it was very dangerous because of my asthma. And then there’s that time when I caught the flu, and then right after because of my weakened immune system, I caught Whooping Cough from someone who hadn’t been vaccinated. I HAD been vaccinated, but my body was so fatigued from the flu that it couldn’t keep up with immune demands. And so I caught it.
Have you ever had Pertussis (whooping cough)? It’s hard enough on someone with full lung capacity; it can break ribs, it makes you cough so hard. You cough until there is literally no air in your lungs, and you have to inhale so forcefully it makes the “whooping” sound that gives it the name. It’s painful beyond belief, and it can last for weeks. Some people will survive it. But add that to asthma, or to a young child, or to an elderly person, and you are looking at either permanent damage or death, no exceptions. When I had it, I was about 6 years old, and asthmatic; I spent 81 hours awake because the coughing was so violent I physically couldn’t sleep. I tore abdominal muscles. I vomited during coughing fits and aspirated the vomit. I was actively dying. The doctors could barely suppress the cough enough for me to breathe at all. My inhaler wasn’t helping, none of the cough syrups or breathing treatments were helping; I was getting pneumonia on top of the virus. It was Hell. I was LUCKY that I didn’t die.
Who would wish that on their child? Nobody, I hope. And if you KNEW you could keep your child from ever experiencing that, wouldn’t you do whatever it took to ensure their safety?
Or would you look at the safeguard and say, “Nah. I’ll take my chances with my child’s life.”?
That is what the anti-vax movement is doing. Perhaps not purposefully, but that’s the end result. These aren’t just names on syringes designed to make a child cry; the diseases are real, and real threats to health and life, and the vaccines are how you prevent them. Yet we are so far removed from the impact and effects of these diseases BECAUSE of the peace brought to us BY vaccines that people now feel no qualm about refusing vaccines.
That’s what scares me about the anti-vax movement; people have become so complacent that they no longer worry about these very real, very deadly diseases. They’d rather risk their child’s life than get a shot? The side effects of vaccines are unproven (nonexistent), but the efficacy of vaccines are very much proven.
When the pertussis vaccine first came out, people jumped on it right away. They were so grateful to have it, and for a while everything was smooth sailing, and whooping cough was on the decline. Then, in the 70s, some groups started claiming the pertussis vaccine was causing brain injury in young children. Less than 50 in 15 million cases were reported, but it was enough to scare people away from the vaccine. And children began dying again. It was later discovered that it was NOT the vaccine, but the result of infantile epilepsy, that caused the brain damage. People began once more vaccinating their children, but not before hundreds if not thousands had died.
And that’s what’s happening now. A falsified claim scared just enough people that time-tested, lab-tested, fully-proven, totally safe vaccines are being rejected, and we’re already starting to pay with lives. And I’m scared it’s going to get worse. People don’t really grasp the full import of these diseases and the necessity of the vaccines until they have experienced the disease. I’m scared that it’s going to come down to new epidemics before people will realize the mistake of not vaccinating.
Right now we’re still in the semi-safe zone. Enough of the population is immunized that we could probably keep most pandemics of these diseases at bay. But if this movement keeps gaining momentum, there might come a day when measles and pertussis could once again destroy thousands of people yearly. Imagine if some terrorist group weaponized Ebola and used it against this country; so many people would die, because we have no vaccine for it, no way to prevent it. That is what could happen with diseases like mumps, rubella, measles, pertussis, Diphtheria, and polio. Except it wouldn’t be terrorists using a disease as a weapon; it would be some kid in your child’s class, or your neighbor across the street, or the guy who delivers the mail to your office. That’s how life used to be, and if someone from the pre-vaccine era could see us now, they’d weep for joy at the idea that we can prevent these horrific diseases; and then they’d weep in sorrow at the idea that people are voluntarily turning down that safeguard.
It’s true, vaccines aren’t always 100% effective; I was immunized, but still got Whooping Cough (lowered immune function, if you recall). But you know who didn’t get it? My baby sister. My big sister. My cousins. My mother and father. My classmates, the other kids at my doctor’s office. The nurses at the hospital. The pharmacy workers. Their children. The kids my mom taught at school. All those people were safe because of vaccines. And you know what else? When I was in India, I was exposed to polio. Didn’t get it. Know why? I was vaccinated. I was exposed to chicken pox in 5th grade. One unvaccinated kid got it, and the other 4 kids in our class who weren’t vaccinated got it. But you know who didn’t? The rest of us who WERE vaccinated.
Vaccination may not be perfect, and the only way we will improve them is by continuing research. But the fact remains that as they are now, vaccines cause no lasting side effects (injection site pain goes away), and are extremely effective at preventing dangerous, painful, debilitating, often deadly diseases. Let’s keep researching, yes, but in the mean time, PLEASE vaccinate. It’s not worth your life, or your child’s, or anyone else’s. Vaccines save lives, not destroy them.
People are suffering and dying because it has become fashionable in the anti-science circles to deny the truth. The truth is that vaccinations save lives and reduce human misery. The truth is that the diseases our great-grandparents knew are still out there, and we should not be playing chicken with them. Don’t be afraid. Get vaccinated. We already know how to protect ourselves. We can stop the next outbreaks of scarlet fever, rubella, diphtheria and so many other miserable and deadly diseases before they even start. We just need to stop listening to people who don’t “believe” in science. Because the thing about science is that it’s real and true whether people want to believe it or not.
When I tell anti-vaxxers that they need to vaccinate their kids, they tend to act like it’s all part of my evil plan: like I WANT their children to be autistic. The truth is, I would never suggest anything that would make their child autistic. Because if a person is willing to admit that they would rather their child be dead than autistic, they don’t need to be anywhere near autistic children. I would never want to subject an autistic child to that.
Me (in my head): I wouldn’t let you inject me with live virus which will shed for days exposing everyone around me on the incredibly unlikely chance that I will encounter that particular strain of influenza, if you paid me. I am 42 and healthy and not afraid of the flu. The pharmaceutical industry is evil and preys on our obsession with the avoidance of legitimate suffering.
Me (out loud): No thanks, I don’t believe in that.
“It’s fun to watch you both grow up,” the doctor said, putting a Band-Aid over the site where my three-year-old daughter had just received the MMR vaccine. At first, I bristled at her condescension, at the idea that I somehow still had growing up to do. But it was true. When I’d first visited her office three years before, I had been a different person. I had been a child.
My fears were a product of a potentially lethal combination of maternal panic and youthful ignorance. I was afraid. I was afraid of autism, of chemicals, of pharmaceutical companies, of pills, of needles. I saw medicine as an impersonal monolith of unpronounceable words and latex gloves, of figures and averages and data. I didn’t trust it with the pearl I guarded inside my womb. I wanted my baby to be safe—and safety, it seemed, could be promised by midwives and crystals, herbs and exercises. I didn’t trust science to provide it…
This article is so well-written and thought-provoking – and certain to rile up the anti-vaxxers just a bit.