Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Pro-vax parents fighting back...

This blog was mentioned in an article in Minnesota Monthly recently, which tackled the problem of parents in Minnesota who refuse to vaccinate their children due to their belief that vaccines somehow caused their children's autism. As you probably know, there is no study that has ever suggested a link between autism and vaccines (the only study to suggest this link, by Andrew Wakefield, was not just withdrawn from the journal in which it appeared; it was deemed fraudulent). In that article, the author suggests that pro-vax parents are filling in the gaps between the public health authorities and pediatricians, who are often put in a position where they cannot be as frank about the importance of vaccines as they'd like to be. That's where we, as parents, come in.

Predictably, the comments section in this article has become an anti-vax propaganda machine because most parents who vaccinate their children aren't as motivated to advocate for vaccines as those who are anti-vaccine are to advocate against them. Another telling aspect of the anti-vaccine movement is the sheer hyperbole and hysteria of their talking points--it betrays a defensiveness that is not present in the science-backed pro-vaccine movement. Such defensiveness is often symptomatic of a person who knows, at their very core, that their beliefs are based on falsehoods.

If you are a new parent or even a vaccine-hesitant parent, I typically do not suggest that you visit anti-vax websites, because the "science" is not science and startling and frightening claims are made but never backed up with science, but I think a visit to the comments page of this article would actually help to let a new parent understand the milieu of the anti-vax movement.

If a new parent chooses not to vaccinate, she should understand that the individuals posting on this article will be her peers. The people she runs with. The ones she will begin advocating for. After reading these comments--the ones promoting exposing one's child to measles rather than getting the vaccine, choosing substantial risk of death for their child over one of the safest medications known to man--you can come to your own conclusion. But know that the misrepresentation of science, the complete misunderstanding of the way vaccine components work in the human body, and, most clearly, emotions dominate their side of the debate. Are you comfortable with this? As I've mentioned before on this blog, as a cautious new parent, I was taken in by this emotional appeal, until I realized that I had been duped and had needlessly put my son's life at risk by delaying a critical vaccine.

One parent did speak up, and I encourage anyone who has chosen to vaccinate and would like to make that fact known to visit the article site and make a comment. In the meantime, here is the lone pro-vax comment from the article. The "deadly consequences" the writer refers to is in response to an anti-vaxxer claiming the story's subtitle about the deadly consequences of vaccine refusal was yellow journalism because there are no deadly consequences to not vaccinating.

Update 12/22/11: It looks like some pro-vax parents are weighing in. Thank you so much to those of you who have taken the time to post in favor of immunization!

Ah, the "deadly consequences" might refer to the fact that unvaccinated
children die from vaccine-preventable diseases on a regular basis, and pass
on those diseases to helpless infants. Ten infants died of pertussis in
California from an outbreak caused by an unvaccinated child in a waiting
room. Those are your deadly consequences. And to promote contracting measles
as a better way to acquire immunity than the vaccine itself makes me pray to
God you are not a parent. If so, you ought to be arrested. Any parent who
willingly exposes a child to a deadly disease is unfit. Period. Your comment
betrays the danger, selfishness, and downright scientific illiteracy of this
anti-vaccine movement.

Why does your opinion matter on vaccines but another parent's not matter?
Would it be worthy of a magazine quote if one of the many heartbroken
parents whose child died from a vaccine-preventable disease acquired from an
unvaccinated child wanted to speak? Shelby is a voice right now for
thousands of parents whose children have been injured or killed by
unvaccinated children (more accurately--their parents) because she is a good
communicator and they ask her to speak for them. Her platform, judging from
her blog, comes from the stories of other parents. Other parents. That's who
you'll be going toe to toe with next, not the "big bad public health
authorities." We are fighting back, because our children's lives matter too.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Their Loss, Your Decision

“We weren’t overly concerned.”

Jen Lastinger’s daughter, Emily, was suffering a bout of flu. The three-and-a-half-year-old who, her mother tells us, “loved princesses and Power Rangers,” had been back and forth to the pediatrician’s office, and each time, her parents were told that things were going as expected. That Emily would “get worse before she gets better.”
Emily Lastinger's Family

One morning, not long after her pediatirican’s visit, Jennifer left Emily watching a cartoon for a few moments while she tidied up the house. When she returned the bedroom, Emily was unconscious. Hours later, her brain activity ceased. She died from influenza.

Emily would have been saved by the flu vaccine. She hadn’t received it because at the time flu vaccine was recommended for certain segments of the population who were considered high-risk, like the elderly. Emily was not in the recommended group (thankfully, the recommendation has changed, thanks in part to the Lastinger family’s advocacy. These days everyone over the age of six months is recommended to get the vaccine).

It is Emily’s legacy, and proof that her death was not in vain, that writers and bloggers across the country are telling her story this week, National Influenza Vaccination Week. Since learning of her story, it is Emily’s face that I see every year around this time, when it comes time to vaccinate my children and myself against flu. She’s the reason why I am among the first in my circle of friends to have my children immunized.

In the last few years, many of my acquaintances have taken to denigrating the flu vaccine—either because they don’t think it works or because they don’t think the flu “is that bad.” Still others believe that “good nutrition” and “healthy eating” can keep the flu at bay. And there is, of course, that segment of parents who can’t abide by any vaccine because of misinformation about the way vaccines work, and leave their children, and the community, at grave risk.

So let’s talk today about some of the myths and facts about the flu vaccine. First, some facts. Flu causes 200,000 hospitalizations each year in the United States. That’s like having the entire city of Modesto, California, in the hospital over the course of a single flu season. Flu can cause up to 32,000 deaths in a season. The flu vaccine is one of the safest “medications” in human history (more on that later). But numbers can glaze the eyes. Even though every single one of those 200,000 hospitalizations caused 200,000 families grief, anxiety, and money, it's still hard to relate to on an individual level, which is understandable given the nature of statistics. For the human side of flu, please visit Families Fighting Flu.

On to the myths.

Myth: the flu vaccine is ineffective

Chelsea Oliver (Craft)
I’ve seen reports on various anti-vax websites or “natural news” websites that the flu vaccine just “doesn’t work”—they take as their proof the fact that the flu vaccine changes each year. (Although a person wouldn’t pass high school biology by making such a claim, it’s out there, and it has traction. )The truth is that it is a triumph of public health that a vaccine for flu can be produced at all. It’s a fickle, mutable virus, that changes from season to season. As a result, the vaccine has to be recreated each year in order to anticipate which influenza strains will be active during the coming winter season. Now you’ll often hear this trotted out as a reason not to get the flu vaccine—that it is anticipatory. For this logic to work a person would have to believe that 0% protection against a potentially deadly illness is equal to or better 50% protection. Let me get even more stark: this same logic suggests that 50% protection is not worth the drive/the trouble/the shot. I’m not willing to gamble like this with my children’s lives. I think in any other risk-reward analysis of harm to our children, every parent would go with 50% protection instead of 0% protection. Flu is a potentially deadly disease. We need to remember to see it that way.

Myth: the flu vaccine contains mercury

Well, first off, this is not true. Some multi-vial doses of flu vaccine contain thimerosal, but the vast majority of the vaccine—including those given at your pediatrician’s office—are thimerosal-free. The FluMist nasal spray is always thimerosal-free. That being said, I won’t bother getting into whether thimerosal in the levels present in any vaccines it was or is in (this multi-dose flu vaccine is the only childhood vaccine that contains the preservative) is worrisome (it’s not). As an aside, one of my favorite pro-vax moms likes to go into her clinic and ask for the "thimerosal-containing" flu shot, which they don't have, just to make a point. 

Myth: the flu isn’t that bad

Tell anyone who says this to you to read Jen Lastinger’s story. Or the Chandler Family, whose four-year-old son, Chance, died. The Crafts, who lost their beautiful fifteen-year-old daughter Chelsea.  The Marottas, whose five-year-old son, Joseph, died from flu. The Lins. The Smiths. The McGowans. The Steins. The list at Families Fighting Flu goes on. And each one of these families is a family like yours. The loss was unimaginable. It is a slap in the face to any parent who has lost a child to flu to hear that disease described as “not that bad” or not worth vaccinating against. To me, as a parent, it’s these stories—stories these parents are willing to live through again and again as they advocate for flu awareness and vaccination—that get me in my car and to the doctor’s office for my shot and my children’s shots. If we are willing to entertain the decision whether or not to vaccinate our children against flu, we also must be willing to learn about these children. Otherwise we come by a decision not to vaccinate dishonestly.

Myth: the flu vaccine isn’t safe/its safety hasn’t been proven/it needs more testing

Given in the millions upon millions of doses around the world, the flu vaccine is among the most successful and safe vaccines ever devised. Dr. William Shafner, Chair of Preventive Medicine at Vanderbilt and President of National Foundation of Infectious Diseases tell us that the CDC, along with its sister public health organizations across the world, monitor the flu vaccine constantly. And although the FDA licenses a new variant of the vaccine every year, each vaccine comes to us with the basic structure of the vaccine that has that extraordinarily safe record. It honestly doesn't get any safer than this vaccine.

Myth: You can get the flu from the shot

This one’s easy. Nope. Not possible. There’s a chance you may feel achy and sneezy, but that’s not flu. It’s the immune response kicking in. It means your existing immune system wasn't up to snuff and it is now kicking into high gear. It means it is working.

At the end of the day, the decision comes down to whether you think your life is worth the flu shot. I know Emily Lastinger's was. I know Chelsea Oliver (Craft)'s was. I know Chance Chandler's was. I know every single child who has died from influenza's life was worth getting the flu vaccine, and it's a tragedy that in so many of these cases, circumstances prevented them from getting the vaccine. Whether it was outdated immunization guidelines, a snowstorm, a lack of vaccine at the clinic, or misunderstanding about the fact that you need to be vaccinated each year, the bottom line is that chances are these children would be here today if they had been vaccinated. And that's why their families fight, and will continue to fight every day of their lives, to make sure you never have to suffer like they did. It's your decision.

A special note to pregnant women: it is critical that you get your flu vaccine this season. You are as vulnerable to serious complications from flu as are the elderly. More, if you immunize, you pass on some of that protection to your baby, who will come into this world absolutely helpless against the flu. And with more and more people choosing not to protect themselves (and the community) against flu, you need to do all you can to keep that baby safe.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Tristen's Story: How Pediatricians Can Make a Difference

By Tristen Warner

I was terrified to vaccinate my son. I am a pretty crunchy mom, and had been hearing non-stop about "problems" with vaccination. My fears kept growing, but I decided that I needed to have real information on why vaxing was horrible. Until then, I’d protect my son the best way I knew how. And that was going ahead with the vaccination schedule.

So I went ahead and put my son through the whole vaccine schedule, but decided to skip the chicken pox vaccine. As a “crunchy” mom, it was impossible to avoid the blogs, posts, and articles about the so-called “dangers” of vaccinating. My chiropractor hated both the chicken pox and the hepatitis b vaccines; he and many other people warned me away from them. And yet I was given nothing but false information wherever I turned, including admonishments about “loading down his system” with an “unnecessary” vaccine.

Still, as my son’s next well baby visit approached I decided I would not vaccinate him against chicken pox. I was fine, my partner was fine, no worries, right? I thought back to when I had Chicken Pox as a child. I itched. I slept a lot. My mom brought me a ton of books from the library and I snuggled with my cats eating soup. How bad is chicken pox really, I thought to myself. I had never heard of any horror stories related to chicken pox (at least not until I joined a pro-vax Facebook page). 

The night before my son’s appointment, I talked to my mom again. Our conversation that night prompted me to ask more questions and give our doctor a chance to actually give me information before I made up my mind--though I will honestly say that as I walked in that exam room, I had already decided not to vaccinate. Still, I wanted to act like I was being fair.

The initial part of the visit went well. Then my doctor politely mentioned which vaccines were due at this visit. I held my breath and started asking questions, many of them based on misinformation I’d heard from blogs, websites, and other parents. 

“Can you get shingles from the vax?” 
“How bad is chicken pox, really?”
“Why all this worry?”
“Is chicken pox a form of herpes, and can you get herpes from the vax?” 
“Do you have to re-take the vaccine ever ten years for it to remain effective?”

With grace, patience, and ease he answered each of my questions, even though some of them were probably "momma-worry-stupid" type of concerns, but never once did I get the impression that he thought any less of me. He took all of my questions seriously. Nothing was brushed aside.

His honesty when answering each question, and his respect for my intelligence and my desire to protect my child, made me feel safer. There were, of course, potential side effects to the vaccine, just like they are for any medication. The fact that he didn’t gloss over this fact helped ease my mind as well. He didn't push and he didn't make me feel like vaccinating was part of a big "agenda." His calm kindness, soft humor, and real information I felt more at ease with the idea of giving my baby the chicken pox vaccine. After all, if he didn’t need to get sick to develop an immunity that would help him later in life why should I force that on my little guy?

When I got home and talked about my decision with my mom I heard a sigh of relief over the phone. My mother had had chicken pox herself as a child.

She had almost died. 

I realized then that I had the best pediatrician in the world.

Tristen Warner is a first-time mother to a one-year-old boy, an artist, and a critical thinker. :-) She was a vaccine-hesitant parent, but changed her mind through research and soul searching. 

Editor's Note: If you are a parent who choose to vaccinate and would like to share your story or otherwise contribute to Moms Who Vax, please contact us at momswhovax AT Dads are especially welcome.

Monday, November 14, 2011

A Daughter's Legacy: One Mother's Story

By Stephanie 

I’m a mother of three children and a forthright vaccine advocate. However, only two of my children are vaccinated. My daughter was stillborn in April 2010. Losing her, finding out that her heart had stopped beating within my womb, has been the most shattering experience of my life. She was a beautiful little thing, weighing five pounds and twelve ounces. She had dark curly hair, perfect oval shaped little fingernails, blonde eyelashes and ruby red lips. My husband and I never found out why she died, her stillbirth was one of the “unexplained” ones.
When she died, the profundity of what had happened hit me like a sledgehammer. My baby died. I was a mother with a dead baby. For the rest of my life, I would have to deal with this fact One of my children dying had been my worst nightmare for as long as I could remember. I actually am incredibly sensitive to any story of a child being harmed or dying and often am found crying over news stories or magazine article that portray stories of these tragedies.
I never thought it would happen to me. But it did.
This is the crux of the anti vaccinationist movement. You will hear the cries “my child was born with a perfect immune system! Why mess with it? You never see these diseases anymore! My neighbour’s sister’s boyfriend’s son got measles and he was VACCINATED!”
The anti vaccinationists think it won’t happen to them.
This is because of the overall success of vaccines over time. There are a number of diseases that just are not in circulation in the Western world any more, such as Diphtheria, Rubella and Polio. Anti-vaccinationists have not seen, first hand, the horror of Diphtheria wards in the 40’s; they have not seen a child affected by Congenital Rubella Syndrome. (Editor's Note: Click here for photos of children with Diptheria and Rubella)
Neither have I, of course, but I truly believe that these people are blind to real situations where things can go terribly, terribly wrong. I, on the other hand, am constantly on the lookout for ways to keep my children safe and protected. Vaccination is a perfect example of a way to keep your children safe and protected.
Our youngest son was born during the peak of a Pertussis (Whooping Cough) outbreak. Well before he was born, we were advised to have our Pertussis boosters organised, but because I was so concerned about the spread of Pertussis, I had received mine back in 2009, just before I became pregnant with my daughter. Despite this, I still received another shot. Our older son, of course, was up to date with all his vaccinations. When the baby was born, my husband had his jab immediately.
Two weeks before my son was born, another little baby arrived in the world, on the other side of the country to me. This little boy died of Pertussis when he was 5 weeks old. My baby was 3 weeks old when we heard the story on the news and health authorities urged anyone with newborns to keep them indoors and for parents and carers to receive their DTaP vaccine.
For somebody who has already buried a child, this news was terrifying. It made me angry. It made me angry because the reason that this baby had died was because of the perpetuation of misinformation, spread by people who have no critical thinking skills, who cannot evaluate sources, who were urging parents to not vaccinate their children...and as a result, Whooping Cough had managed to penetrate the community. And the most vulnerable members of society, newborns, were paying the price. This little one was amongst many infants who have passed away from Whooping Cough. Dana McCaffrey, Callie Von Tornhout, Carter Dube.
See, it’s all about herd immunity, isn’t it? The more people that are vaccinated, the less able an organism is able to infect a person. Without ample hosts, the disease will die. But the diseases are coming back with a vengeance, because parents are choosing not to vaccinate anymore. There are more available hosts and as the anti vaccinationists bleat “if your kid is vaccinated, why do you care?” we must remember that not all vaccines are 100% effective. There will always be someone who doesn’t mount a good immune response, and so they might be unlucky enough to contract the disease. Furthermore, there are those who cannot be vaccinated, such as those who are immuno-suppressed, women who are pregnant, newborns and people with a genuine contraindication to receive vaccines.
I have always been a supporter of vaccination. But after experiencing the death of my daughter, my advocacy increased, I became a vocal proponent of vaccination and I didn’t care who knew it. In fact, the more people that knew it, the better! I believe that having to have deal with the death of my baby has made me all the more sensitive to children’s health issues and to avoiding unnecessary deaths. As someone who has experienced infant loss first hand, I will campaign to ensure that all parents know the facts about vaccination because I never want to see or hear about another small baby, or any child, for that matter, needlessly suffer the repercussions of a vaccine preventable illness. I am unapologetically outspoken about this cause, it is well known that it is a passion of mine. 
For some, they find it confronting and uncomfortable. I have been unapologetic about not allowing anyone who was not up to date with their boosters to visit my new baby until he had finished his series. I have also been vocal about close family members getting their DTaP, and they did. Not just for my baby, but for all the babies out there who need us to be protected in order to protect them. I have been “unfriended” on Facebook for entering into a debate about the Pertussis vaccine, and as the parties of the debate vehemently purported a range of untruths and incorrect information, I took them to task on the simplest of mistakes. For example, their claim that Pertussis was a virus. Now I asked them how on Earth they expect people to take their assertions seriously if they themselves don’t even have a grasp on basic immunology?                                
This is why I am unflinching  in my quest to increase the amount of correct information regarding vaccination. Because I need to challenge those who are proliferating claims that are downright wrong, influencing parents who don’t know any better, which in turn contributes to the fall in herd immunity. And as this happens, our children are in danger. My young baby, who was not old enough to receive the full series of his immunisations for Pertussis until he was six months old. That was six months of terror that he would be exposed to this insidious bacteria and I would lose another child.
I believe that if my daughter, as little and pure as she was, wanted to leave any sort of legacy, it was this. For her outspoken (yet civil) mother to light a fire underneath people, have as many parents as possible vaccinate their children and themselves to protect our newborns.
Stephanie is a teacher and mother who lives in Australia. You can read more of her writing at

Friday, November 11, 2011

Moms Who Vax: Dr. Kate O'Brien's Story

Editor's Note: To mark World Pneumonia Day, Moms Who Vax, along with a number of other blogs, will run this commentary by pediatrician Kate O'Brien from Johns Hopkins on her experience with her own child's bout of pneumonia. 

By Dr. Kate O'Brien

I’m a pediatrician, an infectious disease pediatrician at that.  We’re supposed to know what to do when a baby has pneumonia---apparently that’s not always true.  I’ve treated hundreds of such cases --- but this time was different.   When it’s your own infant none of that experience matters.  Jack looked at me with what seemed like panic in his eyes.  Coughing, crying, breathing fast, sleeping in fits and spurts.  Babies aren’t supposed to breath that fast.  He lay beside me in bed. It was the day before Christmas and I just kept telling myself that we’d be better soon---apparently that’s not true either.    We both had influenza, I’m sure of that.  If you’ve had it you’ll know what I mean---I felt like hell, exhausted, muscle aches, every time I coughed it felt like sandpaper scraping over my trachea.  But since I’m an infectious disease doc, of course we were vaccinated!---well, apparently that wasn’t true this year.  I had every intention of getting that done weeks earlier, but life got in the way.

The middle of the night always makes things worse, or at least things seem worse.  So, we became ‘that family’, calling our neighbors in the middle of the night to care for our two-year old while we drove to the hospital with Jack.  So many times I was that doctor we were about to meet in the emergency room, scratching my head wondering, “Why did they wait the whole day at home and decide to finally come in at 2 in the morning?”  Well, now I knew.  Sometimes it doesn’t get better.  He had pneumonia on the chest x-ray and needed antibiotics.  

Every day, of every year, millions of children get pneumonia and struggle to breath; more than a million of them don’t get the treatment they need and die.  

Every day of every year something unimaginable to the mothers we are, happens to mothers we don’t know, over 90% of them living in poor countries in Africa and Asia ---their child dies in front of their eyes from pneumonia.  It’s senseless.   It’s inhuman. Vaccines against the biggest pneumonia causing bacteria, Hib and pneumococcus, along with other simple strategies can prevent these deaths.   

So, this year on World Pneumonia Day, look at your kids and remember to get them vaccinated, remember to get yourself vaccinated and remember that not every mother is so lucky….yet.  The GAVI Alliance is helping give those mothers the same opportunity for their kids, faster than ever before for any vaccine.  At a time when the world seems to be more complicated than ever, this seems like a pretty sensible thing to do.

Dr. Kate O’Brien, pediatrician, epidemiologist, Deputy Director of the International Vaccine Access Center (IVAC), Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, USA,
Winner of the 2011 US Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

An Attachment Parenting Mom on Watching "The Greater Good"

By Jennifer Westmoreland Bouchard

I went down the anti-vax rabbit hole the other night. I have to admit that I learned a lot. This not-so-fantastic voyage was prompted by the fact that several friends and acquaintances had recommended I watch “The Greater Good,” described to me as a dispassionate, fair-and-balanced documentary that offers a glimpse into the complex vaccine debate.
The people who recommended this film to me largely share my parenting philosophies. For all intents and purposes, I consider myself a practitioner of attachment parenting (AP). I exclusively breastfeed my four-month-old daughter, we practice elimination communication, I wear her as much as she’ll let me, and I am extremely careful about the products I allow her to use. 
But I’ve noticed an anti-vaccine trend in attachment parenting groups (I partially attribute this to Dr. Sears’ delayed vaccine schedule), to such an extent that I always feel compelled to add that I am pro-vax whenever I’m in a conversation about AP. So, yes, I've become the AP parent who vaccinates according to the routine vaccinations scheduled outlined by the CDC. Why? Because my daughter deserves better than to be put at risk for serious illness as a result of baseless claims and anecdotal evidence. Because my community deserves better than to be subjected to an epidemic, to travel back in time to a much more dangerous time in human history, a time before safe, effective vaccines were available to a majority of the U.S. population.
I’ll be honest: I knew going in that “The Greater Good” was going to be about as fair and balanced as Fox News and as dispassionate as… well, a one-sided conversation about vaccines. I decided to approach my viewing as a sociological study, as a way to begin to understand why there are still those out there who believe the myriad falsehoods and leaps of logic that run rampant in anti-vax side of the vaccine debate.
Five minutes into the film, I wasn’t sure if I could make it through the whole thing, but I pushed ahead in the name of research. In short, the film was everything I thought it would be and more. Creative (read: deceptive) editing and splicing of sound bytes, vague science, anecdotal "evidence," everything you'd expect from a film with full support from Joe Mercola (for information on Joe Mercola, visit Science-Based Medicine's post about his appearance on Dr. Oz's show). The only reasonable parts of the film were the sections featuring Dr. Paul Offit. (I guess these few scenes were the filmmakers attempt at fair and balanced), who says something logical, then the film cuts to a figure such as notorious anti-vax crusader Barbara Loe Fisher who contradicts what he said, and then it cuts to a heart-wrenching anecdote about a child whose illness was “caused by vaccines.” There were, of course, no anecdotes about unvaccinated children whose lives had been ruined by preventable diseases.
Needless to say, I would never recommend this film to anyone. It’s simply a rehashing of all of the old anti-vax chestnuts (yes, the same ones that have been debunked by the medical community over and over). However, I’m glad I watched it. It helped me understand where anti-vaxxers get their information, and how these notions of false causality become hardened truths in their minds.
Though I’m tempted to give it a go, I’m not going to pick apart the film point-by-point. This has already been done by those much more knowledgeable about vaccine debate than I. For starters, try this piece in the Vaccine Times that dissects the film’s trailer: . Or Gorski’s remarkable dissection of the entire film at Science-Based Medicine. 
Never did I imagine that vaccinating my daughter would be perceived as a political or philosophical statement. Never did I imagine that my pediatrician would noticeably relax, relieved when I told her that we were committed to following a routine vaccination schedule. It saddens and angers me that the anti-vaccine voices have become so loud, and that more and more people are being duped into refusing vaccines for their children. Good parents question the safety of everything. It’s what we do. Questioning is important, yes. But it’s even more important to base those questions on hard scientific evidence, on correct information.
We live in a climate where everyone can get a “degree in vaccination studies” at the “University of Google.” As I remind my college students each semester as we come to final paper time, Internet research is fine, just make sure you consult quality sources. Be analytical, be tough, be unrelenting when it comes to the veracity of the information you’re reading. It is my job as a Mom Who Vaxs to be a quality (re)source, to continue to educate myself not only on the science that supports benefits of vaccines, but also on the rhetoric of the anti-vaxxers (so that I can debunk it for those who are still “on the fence” about vaccinations, or anti-vaxxers who are willing to question their views). This is my best hope for helping to make our society safer for our kids, safer for all of us.
Jen Westmoreland Bouchard is a writer, teacher, translator, and mother.


Monday, November 7, 2011

From Anti-Vax to Pro-Vax: One Mom's Story

By Chrissy Ruis

When my oldest child was born in 2005, we faithfully followed the immunization schedule, knowing nothing of the controversy until a several months later, when I discovered internet forums. I have always been into natural health and foods, so when I first learned about all of the scary-sounding ingredients in vaccines, I was alarmed. And then when my son (eight months old at the time) came down with a mild case of pertussis, I was angry that he got all of his shots “for nothing.”

I dove deep into the anti-vax scene, visiting countless websites, reading all of the books I could get my hands on. I read the package inserts, medical journals, and the CDC’s Pink Book, until I convinced myself that I was making an informed choice not to vaccinate. After all, I wasn’t vaccinated and I was perfectly healthy; my father didn’t believe in vaccinations, but he never really told me why. I became an active poster on some parenting forums, taking every opportunity to share my “research”; I even created my own vaccine information web page.

A couple of years later, when I was pregnant with my second child, my husband and I became very concerned with our son’s development; he was lagging behind and just seemed so…different from other toddlers. Our pediatrician was of an older generation and didn’t seem all that concerned, but it just kept nagging at me. My husband and I agreed to give it a little more time to see if he grew out of  “it,” not really knowing for sure what “it” was until soon after, on a mid-October afternoon.

Let me preface by saying I never watch talk shows, which is why it is so odd that, while waiting for my husband to finish getting ready to for an afternoon at the park, I happened to watch Oprah. Her guest that day was Jenny McCarthy, whom I only knew from the ’90’s dating show on MTV, Singled Out. Why was she on Oprah? Turns out, she was promoting her new book, Louder Than Words. The moment came where she began describing her son’s characteristic and it hit me “That’s it: autism!!” Sure, Bobby had relatively normal speech for his 2.75 years, but it was just something about the way he spoke. Everything else was spot-on: the repetitive behavior, the spinning objects, the lack of interaction, the sensory issues; it all fit. He was due for his next well-visit in another month, so I brought it up then with the pediatrician. Like I said, he was an older doctor (in practice longer than I had been alive), and was quite up front with his lack of knowledge about autism… which meant we were pretty much on our own to figure out how to proceed.

Just after his third birthday, Bobby was evaluated, given a diagnosis of autism, and enrolled in a full-day ABA program. At first I was relieved because my worries had finally been validated. Then I was angry and convinced that my child had been damaged by the vaccines he had gotten before we stopped after twelve months. Obviously, I had no intention of poisoning my newborn daughter, too.

Naturally, as the two worlds intersect, I got caught up in the biomedical movement, convinced I would “heal” Bobby by “detoxifying” him. The poor kid was on a restrictive diet, given countless supplements, clay baths. Epson salt rubs, you name it. He did make a lot of progress, to the point where he was one of the highest-functioning kids in his school. Arrogantly, I believed it was because I was so dedicated to biomedical treatments. Once he aged-out of his school, I decided to home school Bobby, as our school district had very few accommodations for him. I continued with biomedical treatments, except we were doing a lot less because money was a lot tighter than before. Home schooling was good at first, but gradually it began to take its toll; I was worn out and exhausted dealing with Bobby’s behaviors 24/7.

Then, last December brought the birth of our third child. We had a very serious health scare when I passed group b streptococcus to him during labor. I got the recommended IV antibiotics, but got to the hospital too late to get the full four-hour course before he was born. Obviously, it wasn’t vaccine-related, but it did cause me to re-evaluate my ideas about health care… including vaccines. When I’d go to the NICU to nurse my new baby, I’d look around at these tiny babies, some of them no bigger than a Barbie doll… and I was in awe of how science has advanced to where micro-preemies now actually have a shot at life.

How a simple antibiotic spared my baby from becoming very sick, or even dying.

Then it hit me that the same could be said for vaccines. I quickly tried to push that thought away, but I couldn’t escape that little epiphany. But how could I suddenly consider vaccinating? My oldest child hadn’t been vaccinated since twelve months, and my three-year-old had never been vaccinated. I still couldn’t think of vaccines as being anything but “toxins,” but I suddenly felt driven to look more closely at the pro-vaccine side.

Seth Mnookin’s book, The Panic Virus, had just been released; it sounded interesting, so I gave it a read. Wow. It made me seriously consider at least selectively vaccinating. He cites Dr. Paul Offit quite a bit, so I grudgingly decided to read his books, too. I devoured the books in one week, and during that time, every anti-vax argument I had began to crumble away.

I realized I wasn’t as smart as I thought I was. Mnookin and Offit’s books completely deconstruct every aspect of the anti-vax and biomedical movements, until there is just no leg for them to stand on.

Realizing how wrong I had been, how easily I could have allowed my children to become seriously ill, and how much money I wasted on biomedical scam…I was so angry with myself. Unfortunately, with everything else going on in my struggle to balance my children’s needs, home schooling, and coping with a severely colicky newborn, I cracked. Literally. I had a mental breakdown and needed to be medicated. Money was tight, so the only way we could afford the co-pays for my medication and therapy sessions was to cut out Bobby’s supplements and the specialty foods to keep him on his diet. I was terrified that he would regress and lose all of his progress, but guess what happened: nothing! He got neither better nor worse, which means we had been throwing money down the drain for nearly three years.

Next came the moment of truth: bringing my kids to be vaccinated. First up was my three-year-old. It was traumatic for her, but we got her up-to-date. I had originally planned on a much delayed schedule for my new baby, but I realized there was just no logical reason to delay, so we went ahead with the recommended schedule. They are both fine and developing typically. With Bobby, I hadn’t planned on getting him any vaccines, but once we decided to send him to public school (we moved to a new district with a better special ed department), I knew I didn’t want to send him without any protection, lest he bring home preventable diseases to the new baby. He got the few he needed to be up-to-date for school and despite my dreadful fears, guess what happened: nothing! He didn’t regress, and if anything, he actually had a developmental leap in his social skills (coincidentally, of course!).

Maybe, just maybe, vaccines had absolutely nothing to do with his autism; he never had a regression or anything, just developmental delays that, two more babies later, I can recognize.

I became very angry at the whole anti-vax movement. Angry at the subtle sleight-of-hand and the exploitation of concerned parents. Angry for the desperate parents of autistic children, who are being scammed like I was. Angry at myself for encouraging so many others to stop vaccinating. I’m slowly making amends, though. I am vocal about my change in beliefs and can (and do!) debate circles around any anti-vaxxer.  The kids are all up-to-date on their vaccines, and are as happy and healthy as ever.

I even got my first vaccinations, too.

Editor's Note: If you are a parent who would like to share your story about why you vaccinate, please contact us at momswhovax AT

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Rubella Files

Jennifer McDonald is a mother of two, with one on the way, and is a member of the Facebook group “Wear ‘em, Nurse ‘em, and Vax ‘em, too.” She wrote in to share a story from her own family history that underscores her decision to vaccinate her children.

When Jennifer’s grandmother was pregnant with Jennifer’s mother in 1960, she was exposed to—and possibly caught—German measles, or Rubella, one of the most dreaded diseases a pregnant woman can get. At this time, because of the high rate of severe birth defects associated with exposure to Rubella, doctors routinely advised termination of the pregnancy. And this is what Jennifer’s grandmother’s doctor advised her to do.

“He’d seen many mothers regret not terminating once their measles-exposed babies were born, and he’d seen firsthand the effect this had on them,” Jennifer says. In fact, the rubella vaccine was developed in order to prevent transmission of the disease to the fetus, because the effects can be so devastating: miscarriage or stillbirth, an infant with severe heart disorders, blindness, deafness, and other organ disorders.
But Jennifer’s grandmother declined to follow her doctor’s suggestions and proceeded with the pregnancy. “And my mother,” Jennifer says, “was born, presumably defect-free.” So they thought.

Because of the exposure to Rubella when she was a fetus, Jennifer’s mother’s chances of being able to have her own children were very slim. Despite this, and a miscarriage, Jennifer’s mother beat the odds and did give birth to four healthy children, including Jennifer. 

“Looking back,” Jennifer says now, “if things were just a tiny bit different, there's a good chance that I wouldn't be here today.” And while she remains grateful, Jennifer says knowing what she does about rubella, it only heightens her frustration with anti-vax activists who say vaccine-preventable diseases are rare and are not as harmful as we have been lead to believe. 

Rubella remains one of the most dangerous diseases for pregnant woman and their fetuses. It is the reason your ob/gyn or midwife makes certain you have rubella immunity when you come in for your first appointment (a blood test can reveal this if you don’t remember if you were vaccinated as a child). 

When considering the rubella vaccine (part of the MMR vaccine), you need to think not just of your children, but of your grandchildren-to-come. That's because by immunizing your child today, you are preventing the heartbreak of rubella transmission from your child to her own child--your grandchild. 

Note: If you have a story about how vaccine-preventable disease has affected your family, either in the past or recently, please contact us at momswhovax AT

Monday, October 24, 2011

The Incredible Hulk Vaccine Side Effect: Or, Understanding VAERS

By Karen Ernst

Inevitably, in the course of speaking with someone who wants to support her decision not to vaccinate her child, you will be asked to read the VAERS (Vaccine Adverse Events Reporting System) database. Reading VAERS is not inherently wrong or bad. However, before reading VAERS, you should understand what it is and what you will find there.

VAERS is the place where doctors, patients, and really anyone else can report what they suspect to be side effect of a vaccination. The CDC and the FDA co-sponsor this data base, and they use it to monitor possible vaccine side effects. When certain patterns or clusters of similar reports appear, public health officials investigate these events and make appropriate recommendations. For example, in 1999, VAERS caught a higher than expected incidence of intussusception—a bowel disorder—following adminstration of RotaShield, a rotovirus vaccine.  Epidemiological studies confirmed the heightened risk of this side effect, and the vaccine was pulled from the market.

In this sense, VAERS is invaluable. It gives public health officials the information they need in order to keep our immunization program as safe as possible. As a parent, I take comfort in the fact that VAERS exists and that people who know how to analyze the data are on top of it.

However, VAERS is a passive reporting system. This means that anyone can report anything to it. There is no go-between. It’s almost like an online forum or message board; anyone can post and no one vets the claims. As such, a report in VAERS does not prove that any adverse event was actually caused by vaccines.  In fact, it doesn't even prove that any reported adverse event actually existed. One of the more well-known examples of how any report makes it into VAERS was Dr. James Laidler’s report that the influenza vaccine turned him into the Incredible Hulk. He inspired Kevin Leitch from Left Brain Right Brain to report a similar Wonder Woman adverse event. 

Of course, those examples are a bit tongue-in-cheek. There are other events people submit, however, which can be taken no more seriously.  For example, here is one reported event, taken word for word from the VAERS data base:

“Information has been received from a nurse practitioner concerning a patient’s nephew, a 17-year-old male consumer who she "thought" was vaccinated with a dose of GARDASIL (lot number not provided) in November 2010. The nurse practitioner stated that two weeks after the patient received the dose of GARDASIL, approximately November 2010 (also reported as "two weeks ago" on approximately 01-APR-2011), the patient died of sudden cardiac death on the lacrosse field. Unspecified medical treatment was given. It was unspecified if any lab diagnostic test were performed. The cause of death was sudden cardiac death. Sudden cardiac death was considered to be immediately life-threatening and disabling by the reporting nurse practitioner. Additional information has been requested.”

In this third-hand report (a nurse practitioner reporting about the nephew of a patient), VAERS cannot even confirm whether or not the deceased ever received the vaccine in question. In another very sad report, suicide (following a history of suicidal ideation) is blamed on a vaccine: “Known chronic depression, she elected to stop her medications when she turned 18. Committed suicide 04/28/11. Hung herself.”

Other similar reports are made here at the well-known anti-vaccine site National Vaccine Information Center. Included in this one page of the VAERS data base are people who read something on the internet and made a VAERS report.  Sometimes the same person made multiple, similar, vague reports. That bereaved parents and concerned others make reports to VAERS is not troublesome, even when these reports may be dubious or even fraudulent.  Epidemiologists and public health experts know how to wade through the overwhelming amount of information in order to determine the safety of our vaccines.
But the anti-vaccine movement relies heavily on the VAERS data base to frighten parents away from vaccines, and this is extremely troublesome. 

VAERS does not prove causation, or even correlation, when it comes to side effects and vaccines. Parents would be far better off trusting their doctors who have examined the studies done to ensure the safety of the vaccines we use to protect our children. As parents, it’s easy to be scared off vaccines by reports of “vaccine injury.” However, when making a decision as crucial as this one, we must know where our information comes from and the truth behind the way it is presented.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Story by Story...

I had the privilege of meeting Brendalee Flint at the Minnesota Department of Health's annual immunization conference. I watched as she told the story of her daughter's experience with contracting meningitis from an unvaccinated child (even though Julienna had been vaccinated herself) twice. The story is one of the most difficult I've ever heard. This child almost died, and her mother's heart with her. With Julieanna, the vaccine didn't take because of an immune problem, so she was unwittingly relying on the community's herd immunity, on other parents vaccinating their children against this evil, ugly, fast-moving disease. Except other parents didn't vaccinate their children, and fifteen-month-old Julieanna nearly died.

This is scary, but it's not a scare-tactic. If the anti-vax movement is anything, it is nothing but scare tactics. If you are making your own vaccine decisions about your children, please take the time to read Brendalee's incredible story and about her daughter's remarkable recovery. I had the honor of looking at lovely Julieanna for an hour during today's parents' panel. In terms of gathering information, if we are capable of hearing the "vaccines are toxic" or "they turned my child autistic" stories, we are capable of looking at the other side and reading the stories of what can happen when we choose not vaccinate. To turn away from these stories is to be dishonest in our decision making. We all want what's best for our kids, and that means making an informed decision about vaccinating. Julieanna will help you make an informed decision. Promise.

Brendalee Flint's Story