The account of how I came to vaccinate my children isn’t one of drama, illness, tears or outrage. It is a quiet journey from the perceived safety of blissful ignorance to the humbling arena of awareness.
I was born into a highly educated, middle class family in the United States in 1972. Being so fortunate, I never knew scarcity, fear, or sickness. My friends all survived early childhood unscathed. I heard about polio from my parents, and how they were kept indoors in fear some summers as children in their communities were struck ill by that disease.
My mother also told me a story of German Measles. She was a teacher while she was pregnant with me, and there was an outbreak in the school. She hadn’t caught this disease as a child. No one at her school knew she was pregnant yet, so taking leave until the outbreak passed was a difficult proposition. Her best option seemed to be to hope for the best. She was lucky, and didn’t get sick. But it was a scary time.
I knew these stories were real, but they seemed to be more fairy tales of a distant time than warnings that I needed to heed. Children growing up in that era also had to ration shoe leather and butter, and the issue of deadly childhood diseases was as foreign a concept to me as the stories about war.
I married a man from the Cape Verde Islands. As a citizen of an African nation, the ghosts of childhood diseases were more present in his experience. He has a scar the size of a silver dollar on his tricep from his own smallpox vaccination. He had grown up around people who were deaf, blind, or disfigured. He had witnessed families losing young children. The dangers of “childhood diseases” were much more real and palpable for him. These were not fairy tales or myths to him.
We had our first child in 2000. At this time there were rumblings in the media about the safety of vaccines, and I listened. I raised my concerns. “Should we vaccinate our baby?” “Is the MMR safe?” Questioning vaccines seemed to be the responsible thing to do. I watched the news, and read the papers. And the headlines stated that there was a link between vaccines and autism. If vaccines could cause autism, could they do other things as well? Were vaccines causing more harm than they were preventing?
My husband refused to even entertain the question, because, unlike me, he understood the consequences in a tangible way. And I am so thankful that his practical attitude, rooted in the knowledge of what was unknown to me, guided our decision to vaccine. We vaccinated them both, on the recommended schedule.
Years later when the news came out that the study that had whipped people into a frenzy about vaccines in the late 90’s/early 2000’s was fraudulent, I was glad I hadn’t based my medical decisions on headlines. And when I read the details of the study, it seemed ridiculous that this study had ever worried anyone at all. But it did. And there are still people clinging to this idea that vaccines are dangerous.
I perfectly fit the demographic profile of people in the US who vilify vaccines. White. Middle–class. Well–Educated. Privileged. Had I married and had children with someone of the same profile, I might be telling a very different story.
Why did it come to that point? Why did a few news stories cause me to question the advice of doctors? Why did I have to be told stories by an individual with different life experience than my own in order to understand the right decision?
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about all this. [End Page 180]
In the passage above, I described myself as “well–educated.” And I am. I graduated from NYU with a BA, and I had a high GPA. I have read many books. I can engage in sparkling conversation with other educated people at parties.
So, the problem? I was completely scientifically illiterate...