Why I'm a vaxxer – and why you should be too

Julie Maclellan

I'm not a "shoulding" kind of parent.

I'm not the mom who wades into online discussion boards telling other moms what their kids should be eating or espousing the virtues of one particular method of sleep training or taking sides in the neverending debate over boob versus bottle.

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I just don't believe there's one "right" way to parent, and I don't believe it's up to me - or to anybody else - to tell another parent what to do.

Which is why I've always stayed out of the vaccination debate. Anyone who follows it knows that the "vaxxers" and the "anti-vaxxers" can eat each other alive faster than any other group of parents out there. I just don't want to become one of those rabidly obsessive types who can't condone any point of view that contradicts mine.

But I've come to the conclusion I've been wrong to stay silent.

Here's the thing: Vaccination is different than just about any other parenting issue that I might agree or disagree with you about. Because your decision to vaccinate or not vaccinate your child doesn't just affect the health of your family.

It affects your neighbours, your co-workers, your classmates,  the people who share public transit with you, the people who shop where you do and who eat where you do and who attend the same playgroups and library storytimes as you and who play on the same sports teams as your kids ... and on, and on, and on.

It affects all of us.

So, as I read yet another headline about yet another preventable disease occurring when it didn't need to (I'm talking about measles this time, but pick one, any one; there's bound to be another headline about pertussis soon) - well, I just can't sit back and not comment on the fact that so many parents are choosing not to vaccinate their children for so many questionable reasons.

It's just plain wrong.

Before you start jumping on me (and I know you're out there just ready to pounce), let me preface this with a few caveats.

First of all, I do believe there are a few - a very few - legitimate reasons to not immunize your children.

First off, there are people for whom it is a genuine religious issue. For the record, I disagree with their interpretations of what they believe the Bible says about vaccination. (I don't think the Bible says anything at all about vaccination, because the concept didn't exist when the Bible was written. But I digress.) I also point out that some of the issues that raise religious red flags - for instance, the commonly held belief that some vaccines contain cells from aborted fetuses - are in fact not true. (Human cells were commonly used in the early stages of the production of some vaccines but aren't any more.)

All that aside, however, I still believe in respecting decisions made from a genuine position of faith.

And there are other, more practical reasons why some children may not be vaccinated.

There are children who may simply too vulnerable to be exposed to a live vaccine such as the one for measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) - those with cancer, HIV, or blood disorders, for instance. And, of course, there is the extremely rare but genuine case where someone has a known life-threatening allergy to a vaccine ingredient.

Those people have real reasons to delay or refuse vaccination.

The rest of us don't.

And it's incumbent upon us to protect everybody else, particularly those most vulnerable members of our society - those who cannot be immunized for the reasons listed above, and those in the first couple of years of their life who are not yet fully through the vaccination schedule and don't carry full immunity yet.

Sure, I could say, what do I care? My kid's protected, I don't need to care about anyone else's.

But that's not how society works - not if we want to keep everyone healthy and keep at bay diseases that have no business even existing in today's society because WE HAVE WAYS TO CONTROL THEM.

Yes, I'm yelling. It's just seriously frustrating to me that these diseases can still make the headlines. I'm talking things like measles, polio, diphtheria - diseases that used to cause serious illness and long-term consequences, and that used to claim young lives as a regular occurrence.

Part of the problem is, I think, that those of us who are of middle age or younger have never lived in an era where any of these diseases were real. Where our sisters and brothers and cousins and friends were the ones falling victim to them and where families were torn apart by illness that was not yet preventable.

We simply can't conceive of the "bad old days," and we just don't get how scary these diseases are.

So it's far too easy for us to get caught up in the crusade when we discover there's a whole movement out there that's trying hard to convince us that if we're good parents, that if we believe in natural living and a cleaner, greener world, we ought to be rejecting the concept of vaccination.

It makes me crazy.

Because there is simply NOT ONE SHRED OF CREDIBLE MEDICAL EVIDENCE AGAINST VACCINATION, and masses of it in favour. (Yes, I'm yelling again.)

But don't take my word for it. There's a wealth of information out there about vaccination, and every parent is going to want to read up on it before making a big decision about vaccination.

So read away. But please, arm yourself with genuine information. Don't confuse a well-intentioned, earnest blog post from a so-called "natural living" parent with actual scientific fact.

Here's a few things you'll read in those sorts of blogs.

First big argument? "Vaccinated kids are sicker than non-vaccinated kids, and I know because I never vaccinated my kids and they're never sick."

Big deal. My 20-month-old - who has had every recommended immunization on schedule since she was two months old - never gets sick, either. Without a lot more study than that, we'll never know what factors have given our kids such stellar immune systems. (In my toddler's case, I'm guessing breastfeeding probably has a lot to do with it, but hey, maybe not, maybe we're just lucky. In any case, it simply means nothing either way unless we place it in the context of an actual scientific study.)

Second big argument? "What's the point of vaccinating? Kids are supposed to get measles and chicken pox. I did, and I'm just fine."

True, I did get chicken pox as a kid (I predate the varicella vaccine), and I am in fact just fine. But it's just a ridiculous argument to me. Why should we let our kids get sick unnecessarily? And why should we accept the risks that come along with these diseases - some of which are very serious indeed?

Ah, but that's where the third big argument comes in, of course - which is to say, "Vaccines are worse than the diseases they're supposed to prevent."

Ay, there's the rub for every parent. The thought that a vaccine given with the best of intentions might harm our children is a terrible, terrible fear.

But what makes me nuts is the fact that all the hullabaloo over the so-called danger of vaccinations centres around things that are so easily proven to be false.

That whole autism thing? Right. ONE study by ONE doctor in 1998 raises concerns about a possible link between the MMR vaccine and autism, and suddenly the world goes crazy? The study has since been found to be seriously flawed, and The Lancet - the medical journal that published it - has since retracted it. The study involved 12 children, by the way - far too small a sample serve as anything other than a starting point for further questions. Moreover, it was found to be flawed for a number of reasons - not the least of which were that the children were hand-picked and that Dr. Andrew Wakefield himself received compensation from attorneys who were representing several of the study subjects in a lawsuit against vaccine manufacturers, and he held a patent for a new measles vaccine. Um. Really? (More here.)

Since then, at least 13 genuine epidemiological studies have failed to support an association between MMR and autism.

As a counterpoint, a Danish research team studied 537,303 children born between 1991 and 1998 and concluded there was no difference in the rate of autism between vaccinated and unvaccinated children.

So a dozen kids in a completely debunked mess versus half a million in a legitimate research study? I know which I choose to accept.

Oh, right, and then there's the whole "vaccines put poison stuff in my kid's body" argument.

Again, let's look at the facts.

There's the whole mercury scare - which stems from the fact that some vaccines contain thiomersal, a preservative derived from ethyl mercury. (Not methyl mercury, its much more scary counterpart - and at levels so low that it has never been found to produce any negative health effects.) But the real kicker? Since 2001, no vaccine in Canada for routine use in children has contained thiomersal (except the flu shot, which I treat as a different category altogether). The recommended scheduled immunizations - DTaP, polio, Hib - have no contained thiomersal since 1997-98 - and the MMR vaccine used in Canada has never contained it. (More here and here)

Yes, there are some additives put in vaccines to help them remain effective (like gelatin) and there are also the "adjuvants" to help the body create a better immune response - like aluminum salts and squalene. Both are naturally occurring substances that have been found to be safe. (more here)

I could go on, and on, and on.

But the thing is, I know I'm never going to convince anyone who desperately wants to believe that vaccines are bad.

For any scientific fact or study I quote, there will be someone waiting in the wings with a theory about a massive conspiracy involving governments and Big Pharma that suggests that somehow, every medical organization in the world full of highly trained, highly educated, highly skilled individuals that says vaccines are safe and effective has been brainwashed or bought off (or both) by the drug companies.

The thought is so ludicrous that it would make me laugh if it weren't so sad.

I'll stop trying to convince you if you don't agree with me.

But I'll just say that I'm going to continue to believe the World Health Organization, and Health Canada, and the Canadian Pediatric Society, and the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Canadian Health Sciences Research Foundation, and the American Academy of Pediatrics, and ...

Well, never mind.

If you don't believe them, you certainly won't believe me.

But it won't change the fact that I'm coming out on this one.

I'm a vaxxer, and you should be too.

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