Last year, to celebrate his 4th birthday, Damian and I took Waits to Disneyland for the first time. It was basically the best day ever, and we decided then and there that this would become an annual tradition for us. Kid birthdays at Disneyland!
Well, Waits is turning 5 next month, and I’m sure by now you know where I’m going with this. Because California is smack in the middle of a big (and growing) measles outbreak. And apparently, Disneyland is ground zero.
So the big question: Are we going to go to Disneyland this year for Waits’s birthday?
So vaccines. This is something that I’ve been meaning to write about – and that people have been begging me to write about – for a very long time. The issue is mostly that I’m ridiculously busy, and writing a post like this takes a lot of precision, and care, and emotional energy. It has to be just right, because it’s such a charged topic.
And there’s a lot of topics like those, so many things I want and plan to write about some day. But my lack of time means that I’m often operating with numerous major blog posts just bubbling away in the back of my brain, turning over and percolating until one day, unexpectedly, they decide it’s time to come out.
And that’s what happened today, in the shower actually, when this post just began to boil over and spill out of my brain all at once. So much so that I had to leap from the shower and stand, literally dripping wet in the middle of my bathroom, as I scrawled this entire miniature manifesto on pieces of coral-colored scratch paper. By the time I was done scribbling, I was dry.
And I guess I’m ready to share my thoughts on vaccination, now.
I remember back when I was pregnant with Waits, and I began to think about vaccinations. And living in Portland – nestled comfortably in the warm attachment-parenting, natural living, eco-friendly, vegan embrace of Portland Oregon parenting circles – I was definitely exposed to a lot of wariness surrounding vaccination.
And you all know that I am a hippie at heart. Raised a hippie, always a hippie. But then, I also have this strange sort of inborn duality. Because after my mother died when I was 9, I was raised by both my father, and my godparents. And my father is an herbalist, acupuncturist, and practitioner of Chinese Medicine. But my godfather is an MD, and relatively western-medicine-oriented.
So I grew up exposed to the inner-workings of both sides, and I feel like it’s given me a uniquely broadened lens with which I approach the issues of health, wellness, and medicine.
Like on the one hand, I make my own Oil Of Oregano to use during cold and flu season. Because hippie. But then on the other hand, I’m also, ya know, an actual scientist – in graduate school studying and teaching biology.
A little of this . . . a little of that.
But I digress. That’s just my background, and meant to illustrate how and why I approach these sorts of issues. Which is:
Open minded, and intellectually honest.
And I feel like those two qualities are so often missing from the vaccination conversation, which tends to be drawn in black-and-white terms, steeped in hyperbole and barbed with ad hominem. It’s not pretty. It’s not smart. And it’s certainly not helpful.
So when it came time to educate myself on vaccines, I tried to avoid the more hand-wringing, shrill sorts of voices – on both sides. And actually, I avoided the majority of voices all together, because I wasn’t after opinions. I was after evidence.
My most valuable source was the most neutral and trusted book I could find: The Vaccine Book by Dr. Sears.
This book is simple, straightforward, and methodical. Dr. Sears simply presents each of the vaccine-preventable diseases: what they do and how they’re transmitted, the possible complications and outcomes associated with each one, and the statistical probabilities that each of these things could happen to your child. Straight data.
He also very clearly covers each accompanying vaccine: how it’s made, what poisons it contains, how it’s administered (separate or grouped, live versus inactivated, and including specific brand names), the potential mild and severe side effects, and the statistical probabilities that any of those side affects would happen to your child. It is very frank, and very honest. Which was very much appreciated.
As I read through the book, I compiled my findings – essentially creating a “Cliffs Notes” version – in a Word doc which I then passed along to Damian. Once he had gone over it, and done a bit of his own research, we sat down to form a game plan.
To vaccinate, or not to vaccinate.
I remember when I was 22 years old, and taking my very first college-level Political Science course (and loving every single second of it). I remember very clearly the day that we learned about John Locke, and his concept of the “Social Contract”.
Locke believed that humans would intrinsically form communities in order to protect and abet one another, and that when they did, they sort of . . . “involuntarily volunteered” . . . to operate under a set of natural laws that would guide and govern them. Essentially, he argued that we do not exist solely as individuals, independent from the people around us. Instead, we are part of a larger social system, where our civil rights are granted to us when we resolve to respect and defend the civil rights of our fellow humans. It was basically an overly-complicated, “Age Of Enlightenment”-y version of “We’re all in this together, man.”
And it resonated deeply with me.
Because HIPPIE, right?! But seriously, when I learned about Locke and how his ideas had helped to animate the foundation of our country, had informed our very Declaration Of Independence, I was nothing short of inspired. Because these are my beliefs as well.
I am a godless heathen with no spiritualism to guide me. But I do believe in goodness. I believe in our humanity. And I believe in community.
And this is what Damian and I kept returning to, as we talked and talked and talked our way around the vaccine debate. And boy howdy, did we talk! For weeks, maybe months, and from every angle. We examined and uncovered, sifted and sleuthed. We adopted new perspectives just to try them on for size – to see how the words felt falling from our lips. We’d be hot one day, and cold another. It was hard and it was confusing.
But it helped.
And now I’m going to say something that might make me unpopular:
It seems to me that when it comes down to it, those who choose not to vaccinate their children are only able to exercise this privilege because the vast majority of people are providing herd immunity. Period. End of story. (And yes, I have read all the “Herd Immunity Is A Myth” literature out there, and I don’t buy it. Not for one. single second. Because I may be a hippie, but gosh, I’m also a scientist. And there’s just no question. Heard Immunity is real.)
That said, we do know that there are serious risks associated with vaccines, and I’m not talking about friggin’ autism here. I mean seizures, Guillain-Barre syndrome, intussusception (where the intestine ‘telescopes’ in on itself), nerve dysfunction, etc, are all noted on the vaccine inserts, which are written by the manufacturers themselves. This is not hysteria or conspiracy theory. This is coming straight from the pharmaceutical companies that make the vaccines.
So to be clear – getting a vaccine DOES carry a very real – albeit small – risk.
However. People who choose not to vaccinate are, in no uncertain terms, choosing to allow everyone around them to shoulder that risk, and banking on the herd immunity to protect them while they opt out of taking the same risk. And as a parent, I get that. It’s your job to minimize your own child’s risk in whatever way possible.
But then . . . I got to thinking. As a parent.
And I thought about the Social Contract, and what I wanted to teach my child about what it means to belong to a community of fellow humans. To belong to his humanity.
And I thought about how, as a parent, I’m not *just* responsible for protecting my child’s physical safety. No, I’m also responsible for molding him into the man that he will some day become, and thus the way that he will move through the world forevermore. And so I asked myself, what kind of man do I want to teach him to become?
Do I want to teach him, “Me! Me! Me, at the expense of those around me!”
Or do I want to teach him, “I am in community. I am part of something that is bigger than myself, and I have a responsibility to respect and protect my fellow beings.”
And that, ultimately, is how I made my decision. I chose to walk my talk. I chose community.
So we vaccinate Waits. We delayed some of the vaccines, and we keep an alternative schedule, but we do vaccinate our son. There are undeniable risks associated with vaccines, and that’s why I prefer to space them out, and to save as many as we can for when he’s older (most of the risks, especially seizures, are higher in younger children). Anyway, he doesn’t need to be vaccinated for sexually transmitted diseases when he’s 4 years old. But the ones that affect him and the people around him – the highly contagious communicable diseases – well, he’s all caught up on those.*
And as I wrap this up, I’d like to emphasize that this is not meant to be a prescriptive post. I am not telling you what to do or think, and I’m certainly not talking in terms of law or public policy. I wrote this post because I wanted to share my thoughts on a very confusing topic. I wanted to express empathy for the parents who are scared and confused. I wanted to provide space to acknowledge that this issue isn’t as black and white as either side tries to paint it.
But it is important, and that’s why I decided (unexpectedly! in the shower!) to share my own process, and my ultimate decision.
And now, just one last thing before I go: please be nice. Please weigh in below in the comments. Please share your own thoughts and ideas. Please speak honestly and from the heart. You don’t have to agree with me or with each other, but please, please be nice. I have only ever deleted one or two comments in the entire 6-year history of this blog. So please, let’s keep it that way.
Alright my dears, now it’s your turn. Thoughts?
*Except flu. I don’t get the flu vaccine and neither does Waits. This post is about the standard series of childhood vaccinations, not the ever-changing annual flu vaccine. Just wanted to clarify that!