THE BLOG

I'm Coming Out... as Pro-Vaccine

09/24/2013 02:35 pm ET | Updated Feb 04, 2015
  • JJ Keith Author of Motherhood Smotherhoood

I know. Some mom coming out in favor of vaccines shouldn't be breaking news. There's nothing edgy about siding with most parents, nearly all the world's governments and the vast majority of medical researchers and practitioners. But more of us need to do it.

When I see debates about vaccines online -- and as someone who writes about parenting culture I see a lot -- I used to pat myself on the back for not getting mixed up in the fray. I mean, what's it to me what other people do with their kids? I'm secure in my own choices. Besides, even if I wanted to change the minds of anti-vaccine advocates, how could I?

I have two reasons for rethinking my silence: Jack and Clio. I came to know both children through their mothers' blogs and have been following along with their diagnosis and treatment for leukemia. Their illnesses prevent them from receiving live vaccines such as the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) shot. Some kids get diagnosed before they have a chance to receive all of their vaccines, but even kids who were vaccinated, as Jack and Clio were, remain vulnerable to contagious diseases because of their compromised immune systems. The idea that they could be exposed to a vaccine-preventable disease while they are enduring treatment is troubling.

You might be thinking, "No worries, because those kids are protected by herd immunity." Well, so many parents are foregoing vaccines now, quite often in progressive communities like the ones in which Jack and Clio live, that herd immunity is threatened. In California, where I live, there is a database of vaccine rates listed by school. There are pockets where the vaccine rates are dipping below 50 percent. For herd immunity to be effective, vaccination rates need to be at least in the ballpark of 80 percent.

There seems to be two main types of parents who are skipping routine immunization for their healthy children: the ultra-crunchy and the ultra-conservative (plus a third group that I'll address later). The two camps of "ultras" might not seem to have a lot in common, but they're buying their doomsday rations from the same catalog, if you catch my drift. Both groups often have intense distrust of modern medicine and the government. (And not for nothing, as it often feels like the United States government is actively searching for ways to intensify the paranoia of its citizens. I mean, WTH with that NSA stuff?)

However, while there is nothing more "natural" than large numbers of children dying in a Malthusian cesspool of unchecked contagious disease, I'm going to go out on a limb and say that we should avoid that. This shouldn't be a controversial opinion. The increasing success of the anti-vaccine movement is endangering not only immune-compromised children such as Jack and Clio, but also infants too young to be vaccinated. To say nothing of the unvaccinated children themselves.

Some members of both camps of ultras subscribe to the idea that there is a "coordinated media blackout" to conceal the dangers of vaccines because "the exact same people who own the world's drug companies also own America's news outlets," as one recently viral article put it. Even if that were true, our alleged oligarchy doesn't own science and history. Science has repeatedly disproven a link between vaccines and autism. History has shown that vaccine-preventable diseases flourish where there is no herd immunity.

Being informed parents who research the recommendations of their pediatricians is one thing. Doctors aren't infallible. However, anti-vaccine advocates are asking parents to disavowing nearly the entire medical establishment and for much the same reason that cults cut off their followers from their families: If someone is to be convinced of something that cannot be supported legitimately, then legitimate sources must be discredited -- however clumsily.

Mayim Bialik, the sitcom actress and parenting activist, is part of the crunchy camp of vaccine deniers. As the spokesperson for the Holistic Moms Network, she's quite forthcoming with her opinions about co-sleeping and breastfeeding. However, she has mostly refused to comment on vaccines other than to say that she doesn't vaccinate her children. A wise choice, since if she were effective at convincing enough people not to vaccinate, herd immunity will be further compromised and her own unvaccinated darlings will be endangered.

This is the problem with not vaccinating: It's safe only as long as the majority does vaccinate. Enter the conservative camps of ultras. Recently, Eagle Mountain International Church in Newark, Texas, a megachurch where the pastor was critical of vaccines, suffered a measles outbreak so severe that the pastor reversed his stance and sent his followers post haste to the doctor to get some shots before the megachurch suffered an even more mega epidemic.

The ideas of anti-vaccine advocates have been allowed to spread because vaccinating parents tend to not be radicalized enough to bother with arguing with them. However, this tendency for vaccinating parents to stay out of the discussion is what's causing vaccination to lose its bandwagon appeal. Anti-vaxers are loud. The rest of us need to be loud too, because there's nothing crunchy about a resurgence of polio.

So I'm writing here not to the anti-vaccine activists, but to other people like me. People who vaccinated their children but avoid saying too much about it because it seems like it's hopeless or none of our business. Even if it feels like we'll never change the mind of anti-vaccine advocates -- and we might not -- we can do our best to head off new recruits to their movement. Vaccines are different from every other parenting issue in that the choices that parents make affect everyone else as well. Vaccines are everyone's business.

Remember that third camp of anti-vaccine advocates that I mentioned? Many of them are parents of children with autism who badly want an explanation for why their child is atypical. Science doesn't know why, except that the link between autism and vaccines has been repeatedly disproven. All parents -- myself included -- want to believe we can protect our children from everything, but we can't. We just friggin' can't.

Take Jack and Clio. Their parents did everything to keep their children safe and healthy, and yet their kids are battling leukemia. It's so unfair. But one thing that the rest of us can control is that Jack and Clio shouldn't have to encounter measles while treating their cancer because we -- the collective public -- can maintain herd immunity for them, for other immune-compromised people and infants too young to be vaccinated.

Anti-vaccine advocates are fond of telling people to "do the research." I have. I side with science. And I side with Jack and Clio.

For more by JJ Keith, click here.

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