Vaccines, Science, And Empathy

Look, I’ve been putting this one off for ages and ages. It’s not that I’m afraid to risk being controversial (I’m a working class queer non-monogamous mom who writes for the internet, that ship has sailed) it’s more that, well, I have a lot to say. I keep starting to write it down, and then I get distracted by something like my baby trying to stage dive off our bed, and then I remember something else I really should have said in the FIRST paragraph rather than the THIRD paragraph.

 

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(Image: Margot, a small black kitten, after being vaccinated, wearing a fancy bandage.)

 

As a weirdo who writes on the internet, I feel like it’s important for me to say something on the issue of vaccines. But I also want to say something relevant, and maybe even interesting, rather than just proudly proclaiming which “side” I’m on. I don’t know if I’m going to accomplish that. I don’t know if this post will ever be exactly what I want it to be. I’m going to post it anyways, because I’m sick of waiting for it to come together perfectly.

***

You may recall that I had decided to have children long before I met the person who is now my wife. In fact, I was eager to become a mom sooner rather than later, so talking about kids and parenting actually became part of our courtship. I don’t remember how or why the issue of vaccination came up, but I do remember that we were in the kitchen.

I said that vaccination was a non-negotiable topic for me, and that any child who came out of my body was damn well going to have all their shots. She was surprised. After all, I was (and am) pretty alternative. She knew I hoped to give birth to any children I might have at home. She knew I appreciated herbal medicine. Hell, I was the one who convinced her to try acupuncture. It seemed like I was all set to become an extremely crunchy mama, and everyone knows that crunchy mamas don’t vaccinate their kids.

But I felt like my stance wasn’t that surprising, and I told her so. You see, deep down, I’m a nerd.

***

I don’t have any illusions, I don’t think, that my little blog post will sway anyone’s opinion on the matter. I don’t think I can singlehandedly convince anyone who is anti-vaccine or vaccine-hesitant that vaccines are safe and effective. But I do think it’s important to speak up. And it’s important for people to see ,that despite the anti-vaccine claim that anyone who “does the research” will come to the conclusion that vaccines are dangerous and not worth the risk, there are plenty of us who did our research and choose to vaccinate our children.

As part of my commitment to my child, I know that the best way to protect him from some of the most dangerous childhood diseases is vaccination, and so he is vaccinated. As part of my commitment to community, I know that herd immunity is an important part of stopping dangerous diseases from gaining a foothold and also protecting those unable to be vaccinated, and so my child is vaccinated. As a huge history nerd, I find the stories of what life was like prior to the availability of vaccines absolutely abhorrent, and so my child is vaccinated. As a skeptic, I have carefully read the actual data available to us and concluded that in most cases it is safer to vaccinate than to not, and so my child is vaccinated.

***

All that said, I find the memes poking fun at anti-vaccine rhetoric more than a little upsetting. I’m going to admit something here. I sympathize with anti-vaccine parents.

I have a really hard time trusting doctors. It’s not because I’m not a trusting person, it’s because I’ve had a handful of really really bad experiences, and I know both from personal experience and from looking at history that doctors are far from perfect, and don’t always have their patients best interests at heart the way they should. I’ve had doctors tell me that a chronic illness was all in my head (and then prescribe an expensive pill for it anyways and seem surprised when I wanted to know what the pill was and what I should expect it to do!) and I’ve had doctors refuse to listen to me about my own body. I’ve had worse things happen. This past summer I had to leave the ER against doctor’s orders because I was left in a cold, dirty room, soaked in my own breastmilk, not allowed eat or drink but also not hooked up to an IV, for over six hours.
If you are uncomfortable with the medical world, and you are trying to look out for your child, it is natural to ask questions. It makes sense to me that parents would have questions about vaccination.
Unfortunately, many pediatricians are not willing to discuss the matter in a way that isn’t condescending and dismissive. Rather than treating concerned parents like mature and intelligent adult humans, they get frustrated and repeat that the shots are “safe and effective” without explaining why. Or worse, they just lean on a “well, this is what we do” attitude and offer no reassurance or explanation at all.

After that, all the vaccine hesitant parent has to do is a quick google search to find people online saying “you were right to be scared.”

If you have an anti-establishment bent (and let’s be real here, I certainly do) it’s easy to see how that could spiral out of control. This is not helped by the fact that the scientific information available is often difficult for lay people to read and interpret, and science writers contribute to the problem by turning preliminary studies into sensationalist headlines. For example, I recently read an article that referred to a study which showed that some humans can become addicted to some foods (no surprises there) and that a protein in diary products affects dopamine levels in the brain, thus contributing to the possibility of addiction. The headline? Cheese really is crack.

But we rarely talk about anti-vaccine parents as people who have been misled. Maybe part of that is because we’ve all had experiences with folks digging their heals in when we try to helpfully present reliable information, but still. When we talk about anti-vaccine parents as if they are all stupid, as if they all will just do whatever Jenny McCarthy says, as if they are all just a bunch of nut jobs who don’t actually care about their children or public health, we’re not being fair, and we’re certainly not helping. That’s not to say that parents aren’t responsible for their own parenting decisions (we all certainly are, and choosing not to vaccinate your children is potentially a dangerous decision). But if what we are really concerned about is the children, talking shit about their parents is never going to do anything positive for them.

***

A little over a year ago, I was pregnant, and there was a measles outbreak in California. It made me nervous, of course it did. I have friends who’s children are not vaccinated, and while I disagree with them pretty strongly, I try not to think about it too often. But suddenly I was worried. What if the measles came here? How would I handle this as a parent?

Another friend (who doesn’t have children) was talking with me about it at the time. She said that while she wasn’t glad about the measles outbreak (who could be glad about a measles outbreak?) she was glad to see vaccines getting more press coverage. She cocked her head to the side and said “you know, if I had had children five years ago, I wouldn’t have gotten them vaccinated. It would have seemed obvious like, ‘oh yeah, we’re weirdos, of course we don’t vaccinate.'”

I think about that while I’m trying to find my empathy.

***

I considered filling this post with a bunch of informative links, but again, I don’t think I’m going to convince anyone here. I did recently read this very thorough (and as far as I can tell, extremely accurate and well researched) critique of Dr Bob Sears’ supposedly moderate vaccine views. The case for why to vaccine has been made so well so many other places, I don’t know that I’m adding anything new to the conversation, and I don’t know that me spending all day compiling a list of resources for my relatively small number of readers is going to do anybody any good. Anyways, we probably shouldn’t be making family medical decisions based on blog posts, and that includes my blog posts!

Maybe what I’m hoping for with this though, is just a tiny bit more visibility. You can be a crunchy mom and still vaccinate. You can know doctors are not always right and still vaccinate. You can be a complete and total weirdo, and still vaccinate.

I’m doing it. I happen to think it’s the best option.

 

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