Saturday, February 23, 2013

They Don't Speak for Me: Why We Must Act Now

As a parent who vaccinates your child, you probably don't know that as you are going about your daily life, parenting, working, doing volunteer work, writing the Great American Novel in your spare time (what spare time?), a very small but vocal army is pounding the pavement in your name.

It may surprise you to know that the anti-vaccine movement has long claimed to speak for parents in this country when it comes to vaccines. And it is because they are so vocal and we are so, well, busy living our lives, that legislators, government officials, and even some public health organizations think that anti-vaccine activists who believe the MMR causes autism and that the decline of vaccine-preventable disease is due to "better hygiene" represent parents as a whole, when it comes to immunization in this country.

The vast--vast--majority of us choose to vaccinate our children for two reasons: one, we don't want our children to suffer from a preventable disease, possibly become seriously ill, or even die; and two, we don't want any of those things to happen to our neighbors either. Here's the problem: we don't talk about it. I suspect this is because we consider it commonsense. One mother on this blog wrote a post titled: "There's an Anti-Vaccine Movement?" because it had never occurred to her before she had children that people would willingly forgo something that has nearly eliminated one of the most dreaded diseases in human history (polio) and saved the lives of countless children and adults from other diseases that, if not kept in check by widespread immunization, cause unimaginable amounts of suffering.

We never thought we'd have to advocate for something that saves lives, especially the lives of children.

But here we are, and our complacency and our silence has allowed a fringe minority to sit at the table of public health in our place. And there are now consequences for our silence. In Vermont, a common sense bill that would make it more difficult for parents to "conscientiously object" to vaccines and still be allowed to benefit from the public school system has been derailed and defanged because of a highly organized counterattack from anti-vaccine forces, led notably by Barbara Loe Fisher's National Vaccine Information Center (a cleverly named anti-vaccine activist organization). In Oregon at this moment, legislators are considering a simple addition to immunization law that would require parents who opt-out of vaccines to receive educational materials about the risks of vaccine-preventable diseases. The fact that anti-vaccine activists objects even to this speaks for itself. These are the fears of anti-vaccine parents who do not want any obstacle in their quest to get their kids in school with the general population while not having to get those kids immunized.

Who have these legislators heard from? You guessed it: anti-vaccine parents and activists. And not just those living in Oregon. They are getting e-mails and letters from all over the country from people who will fight tooth and nail to preserve their ability to opt-out of immunization and keep their kids in school.

Who haven't they heard from? Us. The parents who vaccinate. The overwhelming majority of us who vaccinate our children because it's the right thing to do for us personally (our kids are protected) and because it's the right thing to do as human beings who live in a community (we protect others). We are the parents who likely would not dream of sending our sick kid to school and infecting his entire class. We are the ones who used common sense. And we're sitting back letting people who have chosen fear and lies over evidence and science speak in our names.

If I sound a little more passionate than usual, it's because I'm angry. We must rise up as a group and take back the conversation. We must let lawmakers know where we stand. I think back to my high school civics class, where we were taught that lawmakers take each letter they receive and apply that strange political calculus to it that, in the end, makes that single letter speak for 10,000 people. Right now, there are legislators in Oregon who believe that millions of parents do not believe in vaccination and do not want the law changed to better protect the community. Let's prove them wrong. You can write and voice your opinion on SB 132, the Oregon bill currently in committee by visiting this site from the Oregon Pediatric Society. It will take you directly to a form where you can write your note. It needn't be long--although mine was about four paragraphs--and you don't have to be a citizen of the state of Oregon (although if you are, we really need you). Let's do this--let's go letter for letter, and beyond. Let's make sure the people who make our immunization law know that we are here, that we care, that we are the 95%.

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