March 30, 2012

End of the Month Controversy- Vaccinations

Influenze outbreak
From Brittanica online
Vaccinations have been on my mind quite a bit lately.

First of all, there's the fact that I'm getting DD and SI enrolled in pre-school for the fall, and that means... vaccination records.  And the fact that next week they have their two and a half year well check up, at which they're scheduled for Hep B shots.

And then there's the ongoing birth control debate going on around the country.  And frankly, I think these two issues are related.

Allow me to explain.

There are a lot of things that are going unspoken by the (mostly) men who are arguing against birth control.  And they're the same sort of (mostly) unspoken things that, reading or listening between the lines, you hear from people who don't believe in vaccinating their children.

"Nobody dies from pregnancy or childbirth."

From the CDC
You hear these politicians talking about how rare it is that a pregnancy *really* jeopardizes the health of the mother.  And yet...

Over the last decade, the maternal mortality rate in the United states has doubled.  DOUBLED.

There are probably a lot of reasons for this, from inadequate prenatal care to the rising rate of c-sections.  But that doesn't change the fact that, yeah, women die as a result of pregnancy and childbirth.  And twice as many American women are doing it as they did ten years ago.

Which brings me back to vaccinations.  I personally know several mothers who don't vaccinate their kids because, "Nobody dies of the measles."

Educated women.  Empowered women.  Women of my age, with many of the same life experiences that I have.

The children of my generation were pretty much all vaccinated.  I never had the experience of losing a classmate or a sibling to a preventable disease.  I never knew a child who was effected by polio.  I never even heard stories about, "a friend of a friend of my cousin's neighbor" who had a baby brother or sister that died of whooping cough.

And so for mothers of my generation in particular, vaccination can seem... unnecessary.  Why give my children shots- shots that will hurt them- so that they won't ever get a thing that just isn't a big deal anymore anyway?

And then there's the belief that vaccinations are linked to Autism.  Beliefs caused by a scam artist who has since recanted his so-called research, but who's claims traveled far and wide.

And then there's the fear of side effects.

And then there's the issue of what the hell is in this shot anyway?

Vaccinating is a hard decision to make.  It's impossible to be 100% informed with a simple layman's pharmacological vocabulary.  It's hard not to be scared at the idea that you're intentionally putting something that you know to be harmful into your child's body.  It's hard not to feel guilty about causing your child pain by stabbing them with a needle.  It's hard not to feel vicarious terror at the idea of being stabbed by a needle yourself.  Needles are scary.

I still firmly believe that it's the right thing to do.

I believe that because there is a reason that nobody I know died from polio, or measles.

There's a reason that I look at adults with shingles and cringe at the idea of that ever being me or my child.

I have been so fortunate to grow up in a society that has come so close to eradicating these diseases.  But they're not gone.  And there are important lessons about disease that we can learn from history.

Like that a society that has never been exposed to a disease is more likely to be utterly decimated by that disease if they ever cross paths.  (Think Native Americans and smallpox.  Or European colonizers in South America and Yellow Fever.)

That it is easier to keep children alive when "common childhood illnesses" don't include measles, scarlet fever, or mumps.  Or smallpox.

These are all diseases that we don't have to have.  That we don't have to worry about dying from.  And that's because of vaccination.

Name that disease
Photo from Brittanica
When the girls' pediatrician first approached me about the chicken pox vaccine, I laughed and said, "I'll think about it."  After all, I had the chicken pox as a kid.  My sisters had it.  Everyone I knew had it.  And we were all fine.  I called my mother and I told her, "This vaccination thing is getting totally out of hand. Do you know they're vaccinating against chicken pox?!"

And she told me about how when she was a child her baby brother had nearly died of chicken pox.  How many children actually did.  And then she told me why so many parents back in my childhood would try so hard to get their kids infected by other kids.  It's because if you get chicken pox as an adult, it's 20 times more likely to kill you- and it never goes away.  You have shingles for the rest of your life.

I did a little research, and I learned that chicken pox related deaths have gone down 88% since the introduction of the vaccine.  And that is a staggering figure for less than two decades of work.

So yes, my children got that shot, too.

I'm going to be perfectly frank.  I hate getting my kids their shots.  I hate holding them down while a nurse stabs them with a series of large needles.  I hate listening to them scream and cry.  I hate that I am responsible for that.  I hate having to lie and tell them that it's not scary, when I know it's scary.  I hate pretending that I'm not scared.  I hate being complicit in their pain, when they simply cannot understand why on earth anyone would want to intentionally hurt them.

I would so much rather that I am occasionally responsible for that trauma than that they die.  For any reason.

If I could get them vaccinated against being hit by a truck, I would do it.  No matter how many injections it took.

When they're pre-teens, I'll be sure to get them vaccinated against HPV.  Because that's a whole category of cervical cancers that they won't get and need to be cured of.  Or die from.

Name that disease
Photo from NIH
If I could get them vaccinated against AIDS, you could bet your ass I'd do it in a heartbeat.  And thankfully, that day may be nearer than I previously believed.

It doesn't matter to me how unlikely it is that they'll be exposed to the measles, or to any other disease for that matter.

What it comes down to is that a case of the measles today is more dangerous that it was fifty years ago.  Not because the disease was more virulent.  Not because the medicine for treating it was better- it's better now.  What it comes down to is that fifty years ago, everybody knew what it looked like.

There's a fever.  There's a runny nose and a cough.  There's red, watery eyes.  That's before the rash shows up.  A rash I definitely couldn't identify on sight- to me the pictures of it look a lot like roseola.  With proper medical care, the mortality rate due to these former "common childhood ailments" is very, very low.  But there are other effects- measles can leave your child blind.  If you're pregnant, rubella can cause horrific defects in your baby.  Diphtheria can make your child fall into a coma.

And we've come so close to actually wiping out these diseases that I just simply wouldn't recognize them.  And neither, most likely, would their doctor.  She's probably never had a kid in her office with diphtheria.

I understand why many parents choose not to vaccinate.  Fear.

Fear of the side effects.

Fear of the pain.

Fear of the responsibility.

I share that fear.

Name that disease
Photo from Brittanica
My fear of my children dying from something preventable is simply greater than my fear of those other things.  Despite the fact that the vaccination is a certain source of pain, and the disease itself so much less certain.

What is certain is that I want to let my children play with other children, without worrying if those children have been to events like the Superbowl, where apparently you can pick up the measles.  Or if they've visited a country with less successful vaccination campaigns.

I want to let Grandmommy and Poppa play with their grandkids when they fly in from South Africa, or China, or any other corner of the globe, without wondering who they might have been exposed to at an airport or train station.

I want to take my children to visit other children, without fear that my children might be the ones spreading disease.

And yes, I'm afraid of making my children sick by giving them shots filled with toxic chemicals.

I am so much more frightened of rubella.  I am so much more frightened of my toddlers spreading pertussis to their new baby sister when she's here.

I'm not ignorant of the risks.  I know there are risks.  I know that every year, many children do die as a result of complications from vaccines.

I also know that the number of children who die from measles, mumps, rubella, polio, meningitis, and the flu is exponentially greater.

Name that disease
Google images
Do I hate myself for vaccinating my children?  While it's happening, yeah, I do.

But from the moment of their first watery post-shot smile onward, I am grateful.  There is so much to worry about as a parent.  There are so many dangers.  I absolutely cannot protect my children against all of them.

But I can protect my children against a growing list of diseases that could harm them- that could cause them permanent disability or death, or even just a few really awful weeks or months of illness.

I am afraid.  We are all afraid.  Parenting is terrifying.  But we all do the best that we can.  And I believe that the best that I can do includes vaccinating my children.

Note: I will not publish or respond to any comments attempting to link autism to vaccinations.  All of the studies that do so have been debunked, and I will not dignify those arguments by engaging on that topic.  All other respectful comments are welcome.


  1. Once again, you have written a beautiful post, addressing all the fears we as parents face when trying to decide what to do about vaccinations. When we were choosing a ped for our newborn, we asked a doctor about vaccinations. She told us that she had treated children with polio and whooping cough and other terrible diseases, and never wanted to have to do that again. She respected our right to do as we wished, but if we did not want to vaccinate, she would not take us as patients. She simply could not face that pain again. It's been 5.5 years now and we love having her as a doctor, in part because of her honesty. (And on another side of that, she recommended that we, as parents of a newborn, also get a vaccination to prevent us from passing on whooping cough. She was shocked that we actually did it - apparently, few of her parents do.)

  2. Thanks for the insight! My son has his 1 year appointment next week and I have to admit that I am apprehensive ( but tat fear is also coming from someone who NEVER takes any medication!!)

  3. I know it's a personal choice, but it infuriates me when people choose not to vaccinate. If everyone elects to rely on herd immunity to protect their children, herd immunity will at some point cease to exist. It also endangers the lives of children who CANNOT be vaccinated due to immune disorders, and whose health depends on the existance of herd immunity. As a health care professional, I have an immense amount of respect for the doctor who does not take patients who refuse vaccinations. If I was in her place, I would do the same thing.

  4. Absolutely brilliant post. It should be printed out and hung in every doctor's office. You are so right about not being able to protect them from everything, but let's do what we can. My grandson was 28 months old when diagnosed with stage iv cancer. After a year and a half, he is still battling when others have already passed away (70% mortality rate for this disease). There is no vaccination and no warning. His parents have had to hold him down for some tests while he sobs and pleads to go home. Not the same as the "normal" diseases, I know, but NO child, NO parent should have to go through something like this when an alternative exists. Brava for your courage in doing it and in writing about it.

  5. I had shingles a few months ago..IT SUCKED and I'm only 25..soooo I'm sure I will get it again.

    Morgan is allowed to have non-live vaccines now, which I think we are caught up on. But anything live she can't have because of her immune disorder.

    We pretty much don't take her anywhere unless she has to go because she is always sick.

    She's hospitalized for stupid little things, I can't imagine if she were to get something big and scary.

    I won't lie that vaccines do scare me, but I guess it's like everything else and you have to weigh the risks and the benefits.

    Sometimes being a parent and making these decisions is really hard. We just have to do what we think is best.

  6. My husband has had chicken pox 4 times. You bet we vaccinated our son for it.The last thing we needed was him bringing it home and my husband ending up in the hospital with them again.

  7. I think, bottom line, it comes down to what we, as the parent, think is the higher risk because there are risks either way.

    You make a good point in that doctors probably are not aware of what to look for if a patient comes in with one of these diseases. Thing is, is that even with a 100% vaccinated community, there is still a chance that someone gets the disease so doctors SHOULD know what to look for. They should NOT assume that just because one is vaccinated that one cannot ever get the disease.

    I think in certain circumstances that yes, the greater risk is not vaccinating. I think that certain families should by all means vaccinate, especially for certain illnesses. I do not believe that vaccinations in and of themselves are evil or horrible. I do feel that there are benefits and that in certain situations, they are necessary. I don't believe that there is a one size fits all solution though.

    We don't vaccinate and I'm sure a few of you are shaking your head and groaning at this. If the decision were entirely up to me, my daughters would have gotten some of the vaccinations probably delayed and on a different schedule than most and probably not all of them. My husband, however, is absolutely adamantly against them. I'm not entirely at peace with this decision and I do worry at times though I'm more at peace with it than some parents would be.

    I don't think it's entirely a black and white decision though. It's definitely a hard one to make and I think the fact that we do have access to information instantaneously makes that decision more difficult. It's one thing to hear about reactions to vaccinations within your community because it's probably a very rare situation but when you have online communities of thousand, tens of thousands, or more, you're more likely to hear of reactions and more likely to become concerned about them.

    It's a different world than that our parents lived in, that's for sure.

  8. Beautifully written. The girl crush just keeps on growing.

    The funny thing is, I was talking to a family member this weekend and Hannah's 15 month well-child visit came up. She practically jumped down my throat. She started pontificating about Autism and how polio has been wiped out so the vaccine isn't necessary anymore. I was stunned because, up until that moment, this was someone I had always respected as a well-educated, intelligent woman.

    I told her that I LIKED not having polio when I was a child, and damn right we were following a vaccination schedule for Hannah. A shot sucks now, but an iron lung sucks later, and for a lot longer. I also asked if she was unaware that all the Autism studies had been debunked and that the data was ::gasp:: made up, and she flew back at me with "proof" that it was all a lie. I was stunned. STUNNED, I tell you.

    It's not elective cosmetic surgery. It's not that I don't know "the truth about vaccines". It's that I'm making a responsible parenting decision to keep my child, and others who rely on herd immunity, healthy.

  9. OK...I got chickenpox, polio, but I'm not sure about the tongue picture and the little blind girl... maybe diphtheria and measles respectively?

  10. @BFwithoutBS Actually, the first is measles, and the last is measles. The tongue is scarlet fever.

  11. I just linked this post in a mommy group because it was the post that convinced me to vaccinate against varicella, but I realized that I never told you that! So thanks!

    I had scarlet fever as a kid- I don't think there's a vaccination for that. It's pretty rare. The only place I had heard of it was in The Velveteen Rabbit, and the school nurse totally missed the strawberry tongue symptom.



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