Taking a Shot at Anti-Vaccination Beliefs

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Anti-vaxxers! Yes, you, the parents who intentionally refrain from immunizing your children for reasons having nothing to do with facts. I'd like to remind you of an important but oftentimes forgotten point: One day, if you’re lucky (and I do mean this literally, given your inclination to gamble) your kids will grow up. And they may take issue with your decision to jeopardize their health, despite the ample evidence that supports childhood vaccinations. Not to mention the health of the herd, and perhaps even their own future children conceived many years down the line.

I know of what I speak. I was raised by a devout Christian Scientist. For the uninitiated, this means a total reliance on prayer for every ailment, big and small, and a complete, irrational distrust of doctors and medicine. During my childhood my mother exempted my siblings and me from any kind of medical intervention on (legally protected) religious grounds, even when every other kid at school was required to participate to ensure the public health. No shots. No wellness check-ups. No eye exams. Nothing.

So it’s no surprise I got the chicken pox and the measles during my elementary school years, as did my brother and sister. Thankfully, we never gave either to my single mom, nor caught the mumps (or so I recall). However, I have no idea if we spread these illnesses to our classmates, or not. Since I could barely see the chalkboard, it’s no real shock I didn’t notice either way.

Today, it’s usually not religion at the forefront of this misguided campaign to keep kids from getting their vaccinations; it’s Internet hype, and a hysterical distrust of the government. “There’s mercury in the shots!” insist those two pillars of scientific thought, the professional blondes Jenny McCarthy, who publically and forcefully blames her son’s autism on routine immunizations, and Kristin Cavallari, who announced last week on “Fox & Friends” that she’s read “one too many books”—forgive my skepticism here; maybe it’s true—to subject her toddler and unborn child to the clear and present danger she believes vaccinations so obviously introduce.

Never mind, then, that nearly two dozen studies have been conducted in recent years by respected research teams around the globe to reveal absolutely no connection between the rise of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) diagnoses and the giving of routine childhood shots. And none suggest any proof that using thimerosal in vaccinations is related, either; in fact, research conducted by the CDC in 2010 shows that children in their study who had developed ASD actually had less exposure to vaccines containing thimerosal than children within the study who’d developed quote-unquote normally.

These TV personalities, who for dubious reasons wield the influence of media’s tentacle-like reach, do a serious disservice to the herd—regular Americans who are trying to do what’s best for their children—by spreading fear and misinformation. It’s damaging to us all.

I have no doubt that McCarthy and Cavallari want what’s best for their kids, too. And they want answers to their concerns. We all do. But the only reason opting out of vaccinations works—for now, anyway, and maybe not for much longer, since the anti-vax bandwagon is gaining traction—is due to what I think of as “the Canadian draft.” (And I’m allowed to make this analogy because I was born in Ontario.)

Here’s what I mean by that: When strength in numbers protects the few, the few exist without much individual risk. Our northern neighbor is heralded as a neutral country that spends the bulk of its tax dollars on providing its citizens with premium healthcare and socialized higher education, as opposed to a bloated national defense—which is wonderful, truly. It’s a system to be admired, in my view. However, it can’t be denied that by virtue of its sharing both northwestern and southern borders with a powerful ally, the United States—a nation that devotes a quarter of its annual budget to the military industrial complex—Canada has much less of a need to follow suit. It’s largely protected in all sorts of ways by proximity. (Some might argue its proximity makes it a closer target, too, but that’s another post.) In other words, Canada can draft and remain neutral, since the U.S. decidedly does neither.

In a similar vein, when well-meaning but wrong-headed parents read a few scary blogs and then decide to buck the system and opt out, they draft on the millions of parents who conquer their fears about the real, if miniscule, risks vaccinations can and sometimes do deliver: potential allergic reactions, say, or the possibility of developing unlikely but significant long-term side effects. Responsible parents understand the benefits of immunizations vastly outweigh these extremely rare risks. And, if parents choose to allow their children to venture into public settings—daycares, schools, playgrounds, the mall—they should also agree to do the responsible thing and protect not only their own kids, but the kids with whom their children learn, socialize, and play.

(And, no! I’m not saying the U.S. is more responsible than Canada. My only point here is that the dominant body assuming both cost and risk inadvertently protects the weaker contingent doing the opposite.)

Betting your kid will safely sail through because the majority agrees to do the right thing is cowardly. It’s also shortsighted: Adults get sick, too. And when kids grow up and contract any of these dangerous, once considered controlled and/or eradicated diseases—illnesses such as polio, mumps, measles, and rubella, now making a comeback around the world—the risk for developing serious health complications is even greater.

When I wanted to get pregnant with my first child, I learned from a routine blood test that my own early bout with measles was not enough to protect a growing fetus within me. Only a vaccination could ward off such complications before I conceived. Contracting measles, mumps, or rubella as a pregnant woman can lead to devastating birth defects for the baby, serious and even life-threatening prenatal complications for the mother, and a greatly increased chance of miscarriage. So I did the responsible thing: I got fully vaccinated as a grown woman before I started my family. And I confess I was not pleased that my own mother had not done the same—for herself or her kids.