Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Moms Who Vax: Pox and the Social Contract

By Karen Ernst

My own personal experience is a poor excuse for supporting the chicken pox vaccine.  I had a relatively mild case of chicken pox with a moderate number of pox congregating on my belly and little feeling of illness or malaise.  In fact, the week I spent with chicken pox is one of my warmest childhood memories since my parents could not take the time off of work and shipped me off, instead, to my grandparents’ house.  I spent most of the week eating cookies, playing boardgames with my grandfather, and watching Wheel of Fortune and The Thunderbirds with my grandmother. Not bad at all.

Despite these warm memories, I vaccinated my children against chicken pox because I have always understood that my personal experiences are not universal and because I know it is impossible to predict whether a child will suffer a mild or a virulent form of this disease.  But it was not until a recent discussion with my mother that I understood completely why my decision to disregard my childhood memories was wise.

My mother had seen a news report about pox parties, and she was understandably upset that parents of my generation were not only opting out of this vaccine but also purposely exposing their children to the virus in hopes of making them ill. It should go without saying that pox parties are misguided at best, so I agreed with her wholeheartedly, adding, “I don't remember anyone attending a pox party when I was a child.”

Something that was not part of my warm, cookie-laden memories of chicken pox was also something that meant no one in my school would have attended a pox party. According to my mother, one of my grade school classmates had a compromised immune system, making chicken pox particularly dangerous. Near the end of each winter, the school sent home a letter reminding parents to watch out for signs of chicken pox and to keep their children home if they showed any symptoms of the illness.  Parents, as responsible members of a caring community, tried to avoid chicken pox if possible and did their most to stop its spread through the school.  Such actions are genuinely the opposite in spirit of a chicken pox party.

Today, we have a safe and effective vaccine that prevents the spread of chicken pox.  We absolutely cannot allow our personal experiences to shade our decisions about the vaccine. Children with compromised immune systems are in our schools, at our libraries, and at our parks.  They deserve the safety that the vaccine provides even if they can’t have the vaccine themselves, and we, as parents, can provide them that safety by vaccinating our own children and keeping them away from other children when they are ill rather than throwing a party for them to sicken their friends.

My children will probably miss out on watching The Thunderbirds with my parents while feeling itchy.  I am okay with that because I am certain that they will have other, healthier childhood memories and because they can grow up to understand that we vaccinate out of care and compassion for our friends, classmates, and neighbors.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Perspective Saves Lives

Why, some people ask, are the real-life stories of parents and children whose lives have been damaged by vaccine-preventable diseases passed on to them by unvaccinated children more "valid" than stories of children and adults who had reactions to the vaccines themselves. The easy answer is they're not. They're not more valid. They're different.

They're different because of the way they are presented. Individuals, like Barbara Loe Fisher from the National Vaccine Information Council, present stories of vaccine side effects like they are common reactions to vaccines. The truth is that the reactions she describes, and that other parents post about, are exceedingly rare. In fact, children and adults can have similar, sometimes even worse, reactions to routine medications, like antibiotics. I've told the story before about the time my then-four-month-old daughter was hospitalized with RSV-1. It was moving so aggressively into her lungs that she now had bacterial pneumonia. The doctors gave her a large dose of antibiotics, via syringe, right there in Urgent Care. With her labored breathing and her tiny little chest heaving, I did not hesitate. Not for an instant.

Since that night, I've often wondered if a parent who chose not to vaccinate out of fear of side effects would have hesitated in my position. If they allowed their child to receive the antibiotics, why? The list of potential side-effects to that particular shot of antibiotics, and all other antibiotics are similar, and vastly more common, than side effects of vaccines. And if this hypothetical non-vaccinating parent wouldn't give her child that antibiotic shot if she were in my position, well...god help them. Bacterial infections don't usually heal themselves.

In reality, no parent, no matter her position on vaccines, would choose not to save her child and walk out the door (if she did, it'd probably make the evening news, honestly). But that's because the disease is right before your eyes, with your child in its grip. Decisions are easy then. Vaccine-preventable diseases are largely invisible, due to the very success of vaccines. It's not until our child contracts one of these awful diseases, or a friend watches her infant struggle to survive pertussis (see Everlee's story below), that we realize the repercussions of our choice whether to vaccinate. By then, it's too late to do anything different. I didn't want to be too late because I didn't have perspective, like this: the medical journal Pediatrics reported that more than a half million children in this country have bad reactions or severe side effects from widely used medication--many of these reactions required hospitalization. The medicines/injections most frequently causing severe reactions? Pencillin and other antibiotics. Five percent of children were sick enough to require hospitalization. Vaccines are mentioned nowhere in this article.

So there are no circles being run here, no parents swapping anti-vax story for pro-vax story, no one-upsmanship. There is simply a difference.  New and expecting parents are sold a bill of goods that, among other things, equates the potential side effects of vaccines with the dangers of contracting the disease the vaccines immunize against, and that is false. I fell for it, too, and wish with all my heart that I hadn't left my son vulnerable to measles, mumps, and rubella for the months that I did. I realized, luckily not too late, that I owed it to my children to gain some perspective on the information I was hearing.

By the way, another question we get a lot is: what's in it for you? Why are you doing this? We're parents. We have no affiliation with any organization. We write this blog from our homes. We gather the stories of other parents. We receive little or no hate mail from anti-vaxxers (although our friends in public health get a lot of it) because we're hard to attack in an effective manner. We are not "pharma shills" (an accusation I hear from time to time and which I find endlessly amusing). We garner no income from this work, unlike Barbara Loe Fisher and other big anti-vax names. We are parents who care deeply about other parent's children, no matter who they are. If we have a bias, it's a bias toward protecting your children, whether you've vaccinated them or not. At the end of the day, no matter your decision on vaccines, we are doing the same thing: doing our best to protect our children. We do this work because we don't want another parent to be scared into risking her child's life, and the lives of other children, by not vaccinating--as a few of us here did for too many months.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Compromising Children's Health and Safety...

Received news this morning regarding the interesting legislation working its way through the Vermont State Legislature over the last week or so that I wanted to pass on. As many of you know, Vermont is currently trying to remove its philosophical or "conscientious" objection opt-out in vaccine law, in order to better protect children. And, as expected, the anti-vax community is fighting tooth and nail to make sure they can continue to refuse to vaccinate their children AND send them to school with no obstacles or challenges. They don't seem to care that this happens when unvaccinated children contract the diseases they could have been vaccinated against, and pass those diseases on to other people.

Today we learned from PKids that   “a compromise on S.199 has been introduced by the Senate Health & Welfare committee.  The proposal would require a conversation between a parent and their child’s Primary Care Provider which included a discussion of the risks and benefits of refusing a vaccination. After this discussion and after sign off by the provider the exemption would be accepted. The process could be incorporated into routine well-child visits before school entry or during the provisional entry period. The proposed legislative language and a sample of a draft exemption form is attached.  The original bill can be found at"

The committee is voting next Tuesday--Valentine's Day--on the compromise, as well as the original bill. As parents who love our children, and the children of parents who choose not to vaccinate them, we really need to get on the horn, or the keyboard, and get in touch with these Senators and ask them to pass S.199 as written. I'm not willing to compromise on the health of my kids. I doubt any of us are. 

If you are from Vermont or know anyone in Vermont--he or she does not even have to be a parent--please ask them to contact their legislators at the e-mail address or phone numbers below. Some talking points include the following:

·       This “compromise” does nothing to improve the protection of our vulnerable children in public daycare and school. 

·       This only formalizes and gives credence to philosophical objection to vaccines making it more ‘official’ that we are slipping backwards on this issue.

·       Why would Vermont adopt the plan of a state (Washington) that is one of three states with the poorest of immunization rates? While their recent legislation hasn’t been around long enough to be evaluated thoroughly, viewed reasonably, it is not likely to have a significant impact on immunization rates.

·       Children are not political decisions, please do not allow children to be opted out of a lifetime of health and happiness.

Senate Health and Welfare

Sen. Claire Ayer, Chair, 504 Thompson Hill Rd., Weybridge, VT 05753
(802) 545-2142
Sen. Kevin Mullin, Vice Chair, 118 Ox Yoke Dr., Rutland, VT 05701
(802) 775-7631 -
Sen. Anthony Pollina, Clerk, 93 Story Rd., North Middlesex, VT 05682
(802) 229-5809 -
Sen. Sally Fox, 80 Bartlett Bay Rd., South Burlington, VT 05403
(802) 860-6428 -
Sen. Hinda Miller, 84 Deforest Heights, Burlington, VT 05401
(802) 862-7008 -

Friday, February 10, 2012


Someone e-mailed us to let us know that folks have been posting an old link on Facebook called "Nine Arguments to Win Any Vaccine Debate." Well, the folks at "Prevent Disease" may have declared victory a bit too early, considering this answer to all nine arguments from Science-Based Medicine. Below is a link to the original article "9 Arguments in Win Any Vaccine Debate," followed by the link to the article on Science-Based Medicine, called "Nine Questions, Nine Answers." Hope the latter proves reassuring to any new parents out there looking for specific, science-based answers to these specious claims.

"9 Arguments to Win Any Vaccine Debate"

"Nine Questions, Nine Answers"

Friday, February 3, 2012

Everlee's Story

Editor's Note: A couple of months ago, we heard about a five-week-old infant in an ICU here in the Twin Cities who had been diagnosed with pertussis , and was battling for her life.  A few weeks ago, the mother of that strong-willed little girl, who fought the pertussis tooth-and-nail and won, got in touch with the Minnesota Department of Health asking for ways she could share her story of a life forever changed by a vaccine-preventable disease. Emily Stevenson's story is below.
Everlee, five weeks old, in the ICU
I am the mother of a beautiful four month old baby girl.  When our daughter was 5 weeks old she began having a mild cough.  Within a few days her coughing spells became much more frequent and intense, she developed a fever, and started having apnea episodes where she would stop breathing for several moments.  It became clear that we were dealing with something very serious.  

We brought her to the doctor where our fears were confirmed: she was diagnosed with pertussis (whooping cough).  We were surprised at how this could happen, as everyone in our family had received the Tdap (diphtheria-pertussis-tetanus) vaccine (Editor's note: Tdap is the pertussis booster for teens and adults; Dtap is the pertussis vaccine course for infants and children).  There was a confirmed case of pertussis in our older daughter's classroom, and although a fluke, we learned that it was possible for the bacteria that causes pertussis to have traveled home on her clothes.  Our baby daughter was at the time too young to receive the DPT vaccine and was vulnerable to being exposed to pertussis.  

She was hospitalized right away, and as her coughing spells became more intense and worrisome she was moved into the intensive care unit.  There was very little that the doctors could do for her as she weathered through the peak phase of the illness.  Pertussis causes intense coughing spells along with other respiratory complications, and is particularly dangerous for infants because of their immature respiratory system.  Our baby had trouble clearing away the thick mucus in her airway and was continuously deprived of oxygen.  The illness also placed considerable stress on her small heart due to the pressure that had built in her chest. Unfortunately, these consequences are typical for an infant with pertussis.  

The weeks that we spent in the hospital were very difficult.  Our baby fought hard against a respiratory illness that her body was not ready to handle.  Each day we watched her struggle for breath, unable to eat or sleep, and have to linger in pain.  We are thankful for her strong will and for the good medical care that she received.  After three weeks in the ICU her symptoms began to wane indicating that she was past the peak phase of the illness.  We were able to bring her home to recover.  Her cough will last for several more weeks, but we are grateful for every day that she shows improvement. 
Everlee caught pertussis from an unvaccinated child
The reality is that pertussis can be largely prevented by the Dtap vaccine.  There are several children in our older daughter's grade level whose parents have chosen to opt out of having them receive the Dtap and other vaccines.  After this experience, we view their choice as part of a frightening trend.  In reality, what our baby went through could have been prevented.  

Parents who choose not to have their children vaccinated fail to realize that they are actually putting infants, and others who are vulnerable, at a high risk.  We have learned that because of this trend the incidence rate of pertussis in Minnesota has grown considerably over the past few years.  We are hopeful that for the safety of individual families and the community that more parents will heed the advice of medical professionals and make the choice to have their children vaccinated.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Live in Vermont? Want Your Kids Safe? We Need Your Help!

You may have heard that the Vermont legislature is considering two bills that would eliminate the philosophical exemption option from their immunization law. This would make it very difficult for parents to simply opt-out of vaccinating their children and still send those children into day-care and school settings. The Senate Health and Welfare Committee took testimony on January 24th. This bill has been referred to the House Education Committee, but they have not scheduled testimony.

That's great, you say. But what's the point? Here's the point. As much as we'd love to write a letter of support for this bill, it would not do a thing--if it would even be read--as Moms Who Vax is based out of Minnesota. So I am taking to the blogwaves to ask if anyone from Vermont is reading this article and cares about the health and safety, not just of their own children, but also the health of other children (including infant siblings, immuno-compromised kids who can't be vaccinated, etc) to please contact Vermont legislators. An e-mail will suffice.

Because here's the deal--the anti-vax community is very small when compared to the number of people who vaccinate their kids. But they are much better mobilized, because they are fighting for their ability to send their kids into daycare and school settings without being vaccinated, and putting the entire school at risk. A large turnout or letter-writing campaign from the statistically small group of non-vaccinators would suggest to legislators a huge outcry against removing this exemption than actually exists. 

Please contact members of both the Senate Health and Welfare Committee and the House Education Committee and express your support of the elimination of a philosophical exemption from the requirement that all children attending school and child care facilities receive immunizations specified by the department of health.

·        Email today and ask the Senators and Representatives to join you in your support for the health of the children of Vermont - Support S.199 & H.527. E-mail addresses are below. And listen, this thing doesn't need to be long. In fact, keep it simple. You're a parent who vaccinates in order to protect your child--and the children of the community--from deadly vaccine-preventable diseases. There should be some obstacle put in place that at least makes it harder for parents who decide not to vaccinate their kids, then throw them into classes with the rest of the community. It's not fair. Parents who vax have rights, too. 

Senate Health & Welfare Committee Members (S.199)
Senator Claire Ayer, Chair - 
Senator Kevin Mullin, Vice Chair - 
Senator Anthony Pollina, Clerk -, 
Senator Hinda Miller -

House Education Committee (H.527)
Howard Crawford, Vice Chair -, 
Philip Peltz, Ranking Member -, 
Gregory Clark -