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.

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