I have long opposed the routine vaccination of children. My seven never received a single shot. I’d like to tell you why I held that position and why I don’t any longer.
At age nineteen I began my career as a mother. My world was suddenly filled with things I had never contemplated before. Physical exams and tests, round-the-clock morning sickness, birthing options. The possibility of having a home birth was something that wasn’t even on my radar until I met the midwife who worked at our rural health clinic. It seemed so right for me, so natural. For a variety of reasons a natural route appealed to me.
Fast forward several months. I’d had a wonderful home birth with a super midwife and no pain meds. My baby girl was growing fabulously. I was learning to breastfeed, to change diapers, to interpret cries, to function without the precious sleep I’d been accustomed to. I read books and magazines about child development and parenting. My mind reeled with information. Obviously I tuned into the items that sounded more natural and less invasive and became quite adept at scoffing in the direction of anything coming from traditional medicine. I had defied modern medicine; I’d birthed naturally in the comfort of my own home. Our bodies were made of stronger stuff than they were credited with. God had made us, God had made everything, all we had to do was work within his parameters, ask his blessing and trust him.
At my daughter’s two month checkup I watched other mommas carrying their screaming infants out of the exam room, asking those of us waiting to excuse the noise, that their babes had just received their immunizations. I knew already that I would not be subjecting my baby girl to this. Not without doing some serious research, I told myself.
For a few years I told myself this. I’d heard the word autism thrown around in connection with vaccinations. I’d had a run-in with a power-hungry medical doctor during my third pregnancy. I met other wonderful moms who chose the natural way. My opinions were increasing, but my knowledge was not. I thought I was playing it safe by not vaccinating; better safe than sorry. Who knew what the pharmaceutical companies were up to? Who knew what would happen if I got my children vaccinated, injected them with all these unnatural chemicals? Did the vaccines even effectively immunize? And against what? A bunch of illnesses that were hardly even around anymore, at least not in my country. And they were simply going overboard; my siblings and I had chickenpox when we were kids and we were fine; a friend of my parents had polio when he was a kid and was told he’d never walk again but he walked just fine. Herd immunity? My children are not part of a herd, they are my children! And we were God’s children; his will be done.
Yet I was relatively quiet about my decision because I knew I hadn’t done the research. I’d intended to, I just never found time, never made it a priority, not until my fourth child was born or sometime around there. I don’t remember how I ended up with the book I did; a friend or the library maybe, but it seemed like a very balanced book. I knew that I needed to read both sides of the vaccine debate to make a good decision and this book was written, if I remember correctly, by four or five individuals with alphabet soup after their names who were each attempting to make their case for or against vaccinations. I felt like I was getting a balanced view, in a very convenient format, and that was enough for me.
I talked with my husband. He was completely indifferent, the decision was mine alone. I considered the things I'd read. There were risks either if we vaccinated, risks if we didn’t. My faith in God was strong. I trusted him to lead me. I prayed. I felt no leading of the spirit, no voice came from heaven, but I assumed he would guide me to make the best decision for my family.
The ultimate deciding factor was how I would feel if something bad happened either because I didn’t vaccinate or because I did. I felt that, worse case scenario, I could more easily bear the consequences resulting from my being inactive than proactive. Doing nothing and taking a chance felt better than actively taking a chance. I mean, if I got my kids shots and they got sick, I didn’t think I could live with myself! But if we should happen to be exposed to something, God would take care of us, we would pray, his will would be done.
That was as much logic as I could muster under the circumstances. I just didn’t know better. I was intimidated by the sheer volume of mixed information.
How do you make any kind of logical decision when you credit or blame God with everything that happens? When you believe he is guiding your every move?
Skip forward another few years. I am pregnant with my sixth child (another area in which I completely trusted God, though I didn’t much want to be pregnant at the time). My fifth child, eighteen months old, had a small but persistent cough for over week. About the time this cough registered in my brain (with all the distractions of a homesteading parent of many) it disappeared and some of the older kids started coughing. Within a few days they were running fevers. They were up in the night vomiting and violently coughing with a terrible whooping noise trying desperately to catch their breaths. I’d heard about this. Pertussis, “whooping cough,” or the “ninety day cough." I did some research and concluded that we were beyond the point that antibiotics could help (and I believed antibiotics were over-prescribed anyway) and the youngest and most vulnerable of our five children had been mercifully spared the worst part of the illness, so I ignored the advice of friends and family that we see a doctor. Yes, it was awful to watch my children suffer, but what could a doctor do for us? I found some herbs and over-the-counter medicine that barely helped with some of the symptoms and we hunkered down for three months of quarantine.
We survived, no permanent damage done. I wore that fact like a badge on my sleeve, though I “knew" God had protected our youngest one; it could have been so bad for him. My stomach turns a little now that I know we were completely on our own; no god watching out for us, just dumb luck. Very dumb luck.
Can you believe it was another six years before I would vaccinate my children?
Today I do not believe there is any deity is watching out for us. That changes a lot of things. I’m telling you, I took the Bible at it’s word and I believed in the power of that God. My life was shaped by that belief. I lived in a bubble of sorts, shut off from much of the world and stuck in a Bible-centered culture where not much mattered as long as you served God with all of your heart and taught your children to do likewise. I have a much broader worldview now. Outside of the bubble I began to understand that we humans have to take care of each other (and our fellow animals). God is not controlling these things. It’s up to us to stop the spread of disease.
I began to understand the scientific method. I learned to think more skeptically. I have learned to better weigh evidence, using tools like peer-reviewed science (see Denny’s blog post on skepticism). My new non-Christian, scientifically minded friends frowned on the anti-vax movement and were very patient with me as I carefully and curiously explored the topic. It seemed like everywhere in science that I turned I saw frustration and ridicule toward anti-vaxers. "There must be something to this and it’s time to ferret out the truth," I said to myself. I realized that years ago when I “studied” the topic that I had approached it with a strong bias and stopped when I found evidence that supported my existing view. I had comforted myself with the idea that I was getting a balance of information, but I realize now the book was largely biased. It looked good; the essays seemed to be written around well-founded reports, but I didn’t understand sources then, didn’t take the time to really look at the sources, I didn’t know how peer-reviewed science worked.
I’m also aware now that much of the anti-vax, “natural,” fundamentalist Christian culture I was part of was grounded in the assumption that the secular world was scheming against us, against God, against the Bible, and that this “science” was mixed in somehow. It sounds so absurd now, but I thought They were out to get Us, that They had an Agenda and that if it wasn’t of God, well… Yeah, you know what team They play for. They taught evolution, for crying out loud! I am not a monkey and They are not to be trusted.
Of course, and as I’ve written before, I understand now that the secular world just sort of does it’s own thing, studying evidence and bizarre things like that, and, for the most part, pays theists no mind.
Are there big pharmaceutical companies just out to make a buck? Probably. Science is a tool that can be used by anyone for any reason. We don’t toss it out just because someone is abusing it. Science is our one and only tool for discovering truth. It is possible to sift through the information and find some presented without an agenda. There are a few basic steps, some basic questions to ask. Michael Shermer discusses ten such questions in the following fifteen minute video, a perfect example of skepticism and science, a must-watch: Baloney Detection Kit
I pushed the ignorance-based fear aside and tackled the issue of vaccinations with my Baloney Detection Kit in hand. I discovered that the autism hype was false; the original author of the paper linking autism to vaccinations, Dr. Andrew Wakefield, later retracted his paper. It didn’t hold up to peer review. His results couldn’t be reproduced, there was evidence that it was all set-up. But the damage was done; a huge number of people stopped vaccinating and refused to vaccinate their children, largely in England but also in the U.S. Pockets of diseases that had almost been eradicated by vaccinations began to pop up again; measles and mumps and pertussis, oh my!
It’s easy for our generation to fall for the anti-vax hype because we grew up in world a where the diseases prevented by vaccination were not prevalent. It seemed long ago, something we didn’t have to face anymore. But, these illness were under control because of vaccinations! And they are coming back because we have stopped guarding ourselves against them!
I read a story about a mother whose two boys have auto-immune disorders that prevent them from being able to receive vaccinations against childhood diseases and also leaves them extremely vulnerable to those diseases; what would make one of my children sick would be fatal to one of hers. I began to understand herd immunity. I began to understand that I am not only risking my children’s health, but I’m putting other people at risk. They are counting on the rest of us to stop the spread of disease; their lives depend upon us.
A few weeks ago I broached the subject with Denny. I told him I was thinking about having the kids all vaccinated. He said he would stand by that decision, would help me in any way he could, was very supportive. I think he was rather waiting for me to come to that, but never pushed me. So, I called up my local health department and together we took on the arduous task of forming a schedule for each of my children. We discussed which vaccinations we would do. I researched the ones I was unfamiliar with and decided to do just about every one of them. When I looked at everything with a skeptic’s eye the risks were so minimal weighed against the remarkable science and success behind these vaccinations.
I feel good about my decision. My children were all brave and are all doing well. I am pleased to live in a world where we are able to prevent the spread of disease.