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

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