[personal rant] Why I Am Adamant About Vaccination

I remember a time when there was no question about vaccination. It was a modern miracle, a triumph of science over disease. I grew up reading Paul de Kruif’s Microbe Hunters, thrilling to the discoveries first of microbes, then of the microbial causes of contagious diseases, and most importantly, the development of vaccines that used the body’s natural immune systems to confer resistance. Terrible diseases like smallpox and polio would soon become a thing of the past, museum relics.

In the years of my childhood, everyone expected kids to get round after round of communicable diseases, most of them viral. This happened to me, too. Before I hit adolescence, I’d had measles, mumps, chickenpox, and rubella (German measles – more about that below). I have vivid memories of losing weeks of school but also of my mother nursing me through each round. I never got diphtheria or pertussis (whooping cough), although the kids down the street got it, or polio. I did know kids who got polio, and everyone knew someone who knew someone who’d died of it. So when the Salk (injected/inactivated) vaccine came along, I got it, and then later the Sabin (oral/live). I was in high school when the Sabin vaccine was made widely available, and my service club helped to administer it on sugar cubes.

I’m diligent about tetanus boosters (TDap, with diphtheria), and received the shingles and pneumonia vaccines on schedule. I also get a yearly flu vaccine, although the one year I didn’t try hard enough in the face of limited supply for my age group, I came down with it: a month-long bout of H1N1 was no fun at all. So in terms of understanding how vaccination contributes to my personal health, I practice what I preach.

But there’s more to the story than just whether I as an individual am protecting myself. Those who scoff at the value of herd immunity receive its benefits while opening the door to exposing not just themselves but those who cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons (babies too young, people of any age who are immunocompromised, etc.) One of the consequences is that when adults contract “childhood” diseases, they are often much sicker and at much greater risk of complications. I saw this when my first husband came down with measles at age 24. His fever spiked above 105o F, leaving him delirious. I spent a night coaxing him into and out of a lukewarm bath, which effectively brought down his temperature to a safer level, over and over again. He was much, much sicker than I’d been at age 10 with the same illness. It took him weeks to fully recover, and thankfully he did not suffer pneumonia or encephalitis, which are more likely in adults over 20 (and children under 5), according to the CDC.

During my first pregnancy, an antibody titer that revealed I’d had rubella as a child. A series of conversations with my mother and sister put together the pieces of my own family tragedy due to contagious disease. In most cases, rubella is a mild infection, except when a woman is pregnant. Contracted in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, babies have an 85% chance of Congenital Rubella Syndrome, including deafness, cataracts, heart defects, neurological issues, and other significant problems. The risk goes down as pregnancy progresses.

This is what happened to my baby sister.

My mother had been mildly ill, and I had been, as well. My sister Madeleine was born blind and with heart defects. She lived only 6 months.

At the time (1950) there was no vaccine, but there is now. Today this loss would have been completely preventable by vaccination, not just for the mother but for all the people around her. This is a public health issue that involves us all.

So when I hear the anti-scientific justifications for refusing to vaccinate children, I think of the baby that could have lived and the grief that haunted my mother the rest of her life. I don’t care about personal choice or fears of governmental conspiracies. None of them count in my mind against the lives of my baby sister, and everyone’s sisters and brothers.

Recently I posted a story on social media:

A federal judge, citing an “unprecedented measles outbreak” in suburban Rockland County, New York, has denied a request to let 44 unvaccinated children return to school. My comment: Vaccination wars: Wackos 0, Science 44.

A person posted this reply:

Feeling sad to see you or anyone use the “wacko” label. It alienates you from anyone with another opinion and it undermines the strength and value of the rationale presented with an ad hominem attack. I have actual reasons for my position and I’m now completely demotivated from sharing them with you.

I honestly do not care what their reasons are. This is not a “tomaytoe, tomahtoe” discussion where understanding through respectful dialog is the goal. This is about whether we as human beings are capable of acting for our common good (which in this case includes protecting our most vulnerable from preventable severe disability and death itself), at the cost of a much smaller risk and a little inconvenience. Do not ever try to convince me that this area of public health is an infringement on civil liberties, or is a plot on the part of Big Pharma. My sister’s life is more valuable than your conspiracy theories.

If you have very young children, aged parents, loved ones with organ transplants or who are otherwise immunocompromised, I will do my utmost to keep you and those you love safe. I will not be the means by which those who cannot be vaccinated fall ill, not if I can help it.

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[personal rant] Why I Am Adamant About Vaccination — 10 Comments

  1. Like you, I grew up in a time when vaccination was a no-brainer. To me it still is. I remember spending a week in a darkened room, lest the measles affect my eyes (this was a very real possibility). And like you, I have a family member who was devastated by rubella. In my case it was a beloved aunt who got rubella while she was pregnant. She was a very young army wife (it was during WWII) alone on the base. When she gave birth it was evident that the baby had died in utero, and because there was infection from the decomposing body inside her, my aunt was never able to have children.

    It’s a personal choice, yes, but one that has huge, wide-ranging consequences for the rest of us. “I didn’t think anyone got measles any more,” a parent was quoted as saying when her unvaccinated child was deathly ill. There’s a reason for that.

  2. Yep. I got German measles in Grad School. It was a ghastly experience. Messed up my eyesight for a couple of years afterwards. Sure wish that immunizations had been available for this when I was young.
    The morning news just reported a case in Wellesley -listed a bunch of places that the patient had been this past week … got around the southern part of the state quite a bit!

  3. I grew up with the image of wards filled with people in iron lungs. They all had polio and could not breathe on their own, but were otherwise cognitively healthy. I had nightmares about this for decades because I had difficulty with the vaccine. My doctors broke up the shot into 3 smaller doses. I’d go home after each one, spike a fever of 101, but once it got to 103. Then I’d break out in spots of excema all over my body. After 3 days I’d be fine. Two weeks later, lather, rinse, repeat.

    But not getting the vaccine was out of the question. No one wanted to be confined to an iron lung for the rest of their lives. I’d rather die. Which was a good possibility.

    We always had at least one child in each class at school all through the grammar years who needed crutches and leg braces. They were the luck ones who didn’t need an iron lung to survive. But they were crippled and dependent for LIFE.

    Vaccines save lives. Vaccines save a lot of heartbreak. I’d rather be sick for 3 days in reaction to the eggs in the culture medium than live in an iron lung.

  4. Our son (born 1995) got whooping cough (at 5 wks old) from one of his vaccinated sisters. He spent 5 days in the hospital. He almost died. The vaccinations are not 100% effective, but, wow, I would take them (and have!) over the alternatives any day. I had a teacher that had polio as a kid and walked with a cane for the rest of his life. I wouldn’t wish those diseases on anyone.

    Vaccinate your kids and yourselves. Don’t depend on herd immunity because it doesn’t always work.

    We were lucky. Our son is a happy healthy adult now. It could have been so much worse.

  5. I grew up in the “vaccination is utterly normal and routine” period, and it croggles me that we’re seeing a backlash against it — especially once it came out that data in the foundational study for the anti-vaxxer movement was falsified. Even if there really were a link to autism (spoiler: there isn’t) . . . it’s like these people are driving around with a bumper sticker that says “I’d rather have a dead kid than an autistic one.” Which is a horrifying sentiment.

  6. The briefest tour through the history books shows you how glorious and wonderful vaccinations are. These things are like sewer systems or infrastructure, or for that matter like the roof and gutters in the house you are sitting in right now. They are the hallmark of civilization, and without them we’d be sitting in mud that smells terrible. But they have to be regularly maintained to deliver the benefits. If you don’t repair and repave the bridges, if you don’t keep up the inoculations, it can all go south in one generation.

  7. Someone recently did a bit of research about who is most heavily promoting the anti-vaccine misinformation: https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2019/02/anti-vaxx-facebook-social-media/583681/
    There is a surprisingly (to me, at least) small number of virulent anti-vaccination sites that are so active in promoting this false narrative that they entrain a long tail of followers.
    Just 7 sites create 20% of the anti-vaxx content on the internet (those often promote and sell alternatives, so they have a financial stake in keeping the debunked argument alive), and if the top 20 or so were shut down there’d be pitifully little momentum left.

    As these sites have had enough success to compromise herd immunity in several locations so outbreaks can spread again, enough people in those locations are starting to get sick again that some of the dangerous complications and consequences will show up, like that poor kid who got lockjaw because his mom wouldn’t let him get the anti-tetanus vaccine, but did let him run barefoot around the farm (alas she didn’t learn from his near-death, she was stil anti-vaccine according to the article I read… how anyone can be that blinkered is unimaginable to me!).

    I rather hope, if one of those anti-vaxxer mom’s kids gets one of those life-altering or fatal consequences, that she will sue the sites that misled her into endangering her child, and hopefully the platform they spread on too, for alloeing this willful endangerment misinformation to take hold and spread. That might finally be enough to take them off the internet, since at present the platforms they spread on won’t effectively combat the spread of misinformation.

    I also wish that someone could reintroduce a law that any platform that spreads news has to tell the truth (not just be impartial), and clearly indicate when things are facts, lies, or personal opinions, and if theories and hypotheses they showcase (e.g. when they let a conspiracy nut spout his fantastic theories on air/in print to their audience) are proven or disproved, supported by facts or mere woolly fantasies. But as long as Fox News is in the driving seat, that would never happen in the USA, I fear.

  8. I grew up in the ’60s, so after smallpox and polio, before MMR etc. I was lucky I only got measles, chicken pox and scarlet fever, but they gave me a fear of what I could hallucinate that kept me clear of LSD etc when I was older. My mother made sure we had every vaccination going, she had good reason as in her thirties in the early ’50s, with three young children she contracted polio, and was isolated from them for months. She lost the use of her balance muscles so she had to learn to walk again without them, she couldn’t cry without great pain, as with so many others it affected her digestion, but worst of all she lost the baby she was pregnant with. So yes don’t tell me you have your reasons, you don’t.

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