I weigh in about vaccines

Back in 1985, I was somewhat more educated about vaccines than the typical parent, having taken a college course on the history of virus diseases — a fascinating and hugely informative course taught by an amazing man whose many accomplishments in the field of medicine included being the head of the CDC’s virology division. So, while I was unquestioningly pro-vaccine to the point that it never dawned on me not to vaccinate, I knew there were things about virus diseases that were yet mysterious and unexplainable. For instance, the two brilliant doctors and researchers who taught my course, experts in the fields of virology and epidemiology, could not entirely explain why certain diseases had obviously been on the decline before vaccines against them were introduced, or why the polio rates in an unvaccinated populace outside the U.S. dropped at the same time and almost the same rate as the newly vaccinated U.S. population.

None of that, for a moment, caused me to question the wisdom of full vaccination against any and all diseases. In all my reading and study, nothing had made me think that vaccines were anything but entirely safe.

Then my infant son experienced syncope following his routine vaccination. I recall holding his limp, seemingly lifeless body in my arms, his breathing so shallow that I could not detect it, and screaming for the doctor, the nurse — anyone — to help. I thought my son was dead.

You don’t get over that quickly.

My son was not dead. The nurse, impatient with my state of shock, and unfamiliar with information like this, told me my son was obviously “shutting down from overstimulation” — even though he was long past the newborn stage and never reacted like that to anything else. She refused to summon the doctor and insisted that I leave immediately.

Still in shock, and not knowing what else to do, I left.

To make a long story short, my infant son — who usually slept very little during the day — remained in what I can only describe as a coma-like state for over 8 hours. I could not rouse him. Repeated calls to the doctor’s office finally resulted in my being told by the nurses that I was an overwrought new mother and should enjoy the “break from my son” for as long as it lasted, and to stop calling them. It was that day that I discovered we had a family history of “bad reactions” to the pertussis vaccine, which prompted me — once my son seemed back to normal — to head off to the UCLA Biomed Library to try to find out what on earth had happened to him.

This was before The National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act, and my son’s frightening reaction was not reported to VAERS. The CDC admits this database is incomplete, even today. How incomplete is anyone’s guess.

In the next two to three years, I read everything I could lay my hands on about vaccines. I questioned medical professionals. I attended seminars. I did all the study and research that I could.

What I discovered during my research was that my son’s reaction, while sounding trivial — oh, he just slept deeply all day — was actually considered serious because it is usually accompanied by neurological damage. Two years later, another pediatrician told me emphatically, “I cannot in good conscience give any member of your family the pertussis vaccine.”

“You might not be so lucky next time,” more than one doctor told me.

I decided to take their medical advice. Unfortunately, I foolishly mentioned this to some other mothers — and that’s when I discovered just how angry, hysterical, and irrationally selfish the radical fringe of the most extremely pro-vaccine parents can get. I discovered that the ones urging me the most vociferously to “Do some research!” had never actually done any of their own, and were totally unfamiliar with what I considered the most basic knowledge about vaccines. When one distraught woman went so far as to scream in my face that she didn’t care if all my children died from vaccines just as long as hers weren’t exposed to whooping cough, I decided this topic was too emotionally loaded to discuss rationally with some people, and it was probably best to keep my mouth shut in the future.

The current hysteria reminds me of those days, only now it seems so much more widespread and virulent. I would recommend parents, and all those concerned about measles, to read this information from the CDC. If you are going to lambaste people for their medical decisions, or clamor for the government to take draconian measures against non-vaccinators, at the very least you should acquire some basic knowledge and make sure your own vaccinations are up to date.

If you think every person who decides to forego a particular vaccine is a dangerously ignorant wacko anti-vaxxer, I would like you to know:

  • Some of us felt very much like you until something scary happened to one of our children
  • Some of us are not at all “anti-vaccine”, but carefully consider the merits of each one, weighing the risks and benefits
  • Some of us have done a lot of research and study in order to make the difficult decisions we have made
  • Some of us are following medical advice
  • Some of us will forego a particular vaccine for reasons that have nothing to do with autism
  • Some of us are so concerned about people with compromised immune systems that we do our best to prevent their exposure to people who are not only possibly ill, but might have recently received a live vaccine (and, contrary to what you may have been told, the measles vaccine in the U.S. is a live vaccine)
  • Some of us understand that no vaccine is 100% effective, which is why we might get argumentative when you insist your fully vaccinated — but obviously sick — child could not possibly have an illness he was vaccinated against, even if his symptoms seem glaringly obvious to everyone else. When we point this out, we aren’t on an anti-vax tear; we just don’t want your kid infecting other kids, vaccinated or not. Besides, if you’re right that the cough that sounds so alarmingly whooping-like isn’t pertussis, or that what your child is covered with is some entirely different pox, then I really don’t want to be exposed to whatever it is your kid has — so please keep him/her home, OK?
  • Some of us understand that not all diseases have a vaccine. We also understand that what might be a “simple cold” or “I hope it’s not the flu, haha” to one person might be quite serious to someone else. That’s why some of us might seem a bit “paranoid” about germs, or overly concerned with maintaining healthy immune systems.
  • We have a wide variety of reasons for choosing against one vaccine, several vaccines, or all vaccines. Don’t assume you know those reasons, or that we are all misguided, ignorant zealouts out to infect your children…after all, I try not to assume all stridently vocal pro-vaccinators are misguided, ignorant zealouts who — because they can’t be bothered to make informed decisions for their children and themselves — want to take away my right to do so.

Note: Since my youngest is almost 18, I no longer have a dog in this fight. And, frankly, that’s a relief.