My vaccine journey

Despite her intense fear of needles (which I do not share), my mom made sure that my sisters and I were fully vaccinated.  As a child of the 80s, this meant I received vaccines for polio; diphtheria, pertussis, and tetanus (DTP); and measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR).  I was not vaccinated against chickenpox (varicella) or rotavirus.

My [two] younger sisters and I all had chickenpox (at the same time), when I was about seven or eight.  It wasn’t pleasant, but, fortunately, none of us had serious complications.  We were all out of school for the standard week.

As a toddler, my youngest sister had rotavirus.  My main memory of her illness is of watching Indiana Jones movies in our den.  However, her vomiting and diarrhea were severe enough and prolonged enough that she was hospitalized for dehydration.

Prior to starting college, I received the Hep B and meningococcal vaccines, and I took advantage of the free, on-campus flu shots throughout college.

Soon enough, I was faced with choices about vaccinating my own child, and as many intelligent, well-meaning parents do, I started asking questions.  I’m not sure exactly what fueled my inquiry, but the views of some in the local home-birth community may have been a factor.

I also had a friend who had followed an “alternate” or “delayed” vaccine schedule, and, after reading some of the Dr. Sears books, I rather liked that plan.  As someone who had never seen measles, polio, pertussis, etc. (except in those scary videos, which don’t really work, though the pertussis one is pretty gross), it didn’t seem like a big deal.  Matthew wanted to learn more before going that route, but I went about finding a supportive pediatrician.

At the time, I was working for a local county health department, and the epidemiologist, who was also a good friend, was aghast at hearing my plans to deviate from the standard vaccination schedule.  She was both vehemently opposed to my plan and shocked that I, who worked in public health, was even considering it.

Interestingly enough, her reaction did little-to-nothing to sway me.  I did not feel like discussing it further with her, and, if anything, it made me more entrenched in my position (because it’s natural to be defensive, right?).

For better or worse, I had easy access to one of the few medical doctors in our area who is considered “anti-vaccine” friendly.  While I was planning to vaccinate, working with this office seemed the easiest route to getting my alternate schedule.

And then we took G to see this doctor for his 2-week check-up.  And I don’t really remember how it came up, but sometime during the course of that office visit, the doctor recommended that, to avoid disease exposure, we not take G out in public for three months.  Granted, never leaving one’s house would be a way to avoid most disease exposures, but this suggestion struck me as completely absurd.

“Really?”  I thought.  “Not taking a baby out of the house for the first three months somehow makes delaying [or skipping] vaccination okay?  That’s absurd!”  First, with the standard immunization schedule, infants don’t receive vaccines (except for Hep B) until they’re two months old anyway.  Second, what happens after three months?  Everything is magically okay?

I left the office feeling more than a little uncertain.  After some discussion, Matthew and I decided we preferred having a dedicated pediatrician for G’s care, and we made G’s four-week appointment with a different practice.

I went into that visit still planning on using an alternate vaccine schedule.  I liked our pediatrician, who also has a Masters in Public Health, right away.  After I asked about an alternate vaccine schedule, he basically said, “I’m not going to make you vaccinate, but every time you come in for a well-child visit, we’ll talk about the vaccines that G should be getting.”

In response to a friend’s recent post on pediatric offices mandating vaccines, I wrote,

While I can totally understand pediatric practices refusing to see patients who don’t vaccinate (especially now, in light of the recent measles outbreaks), I, too, considered a delayed / alternate schedule for G, and may have gone that route if it weren’t for my pediatrician’s gentler approach.  At that point, if he had issued an ultimatum, we may have ended up at a different practice that was VERY lax re. vaccination. Instead, we went with that pediatrician, and ended up following the standard vaccination schedule.

At the time, there were multiple reasons.  The idea of extra trips to the doctor’s office for an alternate vaccine schedule (on top of the every 3-month well-baby visits, plus any sick visits) was not appealing.  And I knew that once we hit kindergarten, if not earlier, he’d have to be caught up anyway (he did need them earlier, for First Steps services), as I had no intention of home-schooling and I was not comfortable with the idea of lying on an exemption form.

I am now pretty firmly in the vaccinate, and vaccinate as-recommended and on-time camp (though I still have some reservations/questions about vaccinating young children against STDs).  Vaccinating is not only for your child, but it’s also a public good, helping prevent outbreaks that would affect the most vulnerable — babies too young to be vaccinated, pediatric cancer patients, etc., but my journey here makes me cautious in how I express my position. 

My reaction to the conversation with my friend/colleague, along with recent research on the ineffectiveness of delivering pro-vaccine information to parents who have reservations about vaccinating (articles here, here, and here — this is quite the conundrum, and certainly a challenge for health communication research, a field in which I used to work), has certainly influenced the way that I approach others.

I’ll conclude by saying that, despite the recent measles outbreaks, and the revelations that some communities have very low vaccination rates, overall, in the U.S., we have very high vaccination rates.  The vast majority of parents ARE vaccinating their children.  Those who are choosing to not vaccinate their children (without a medical reason) would be wise to not encourage others to follow their lead, as they are relying on almost everyone else being vaccinated to keep their children safe.

In addition to the links above on why current vaccine messaging isn’t effective (at changing the minds of those few who choose not to vaccinate), here are some other good vaccine-related reads: