Me (center) advocating on Capitol Hill for Shot@Life, flanked by Legislative Aide to Senator Feinstein Megan Thompson (left), and author of The Thinking Person’s Guide To Autism Shannon Des Roches Rosa (right).
[I think this is what it must feel like in that moment after you've pulled the pin on a grenade, but before you release the trigger. Well ... here goes ...]
When I was pregnant in 2009, I think it’s safe to say that McCarthyism 2.0 (that’s Jenny, not Sen. Joseph) was sort of reaching it’s fever pitch. VACCINES ARE EVIL. VACCINES WILL HURT YOUR BABY.
And, well … as a new mom, LITERALLY THE LAST THING I wanted to do was let the bureaucracy inject evil into my sweet little girl. (Remember, this was before The Lancet retracted Andrew Wakefield’s now infamous essay erroneously claiming vaccines were linked to autism.) My concern didn’t come from a disregard for the health of others, or a desire to revive diseases long dormant in our country. My fear came from a deep, overwhelming, intense love for this creature I had brought to life. I believe it’s the same place most parents operate from when making those early choices for their first baby.
Living in Southern California, many of my more organic, naturally minded friends were discussing the topic with a level of seriousness. This was a decision to be made. A decision to be read up with alleged ramifications that could affect your child for life. Some chose a buffet-style approach to vaccination (ie: “My infant won’t likely be in a position to share needles or having intercourse with a Heb B patient, so I’m going to skip that one”) while others committed wholeheartedly to a naturopathic approach to immunity.
And then of course there was my own mother’s generation — all of whom looked at me like I was crazy for even questioning vaccines, shaking their heads dismissively — “You guys were all vaccinated, and look — you turned out fine.”
As a chronically sick kid myself, I’d never looked at medicine or the medical industry as anything but good and helpful. (At 3 years old, I developed a serious case of mastoiditis as a result of excessive ear infections and had to have a life-saving surgery which involved removing a rotten portion of my skull, just millimeters from my tiny, fragile brain.) But the wariness of my peers felt valid and wasn’t lost on me — there are quite a few more vaccines being peddled to us as parents today then our parents were faced with when we were small. My friends are smart, responsible, educated women, and they certainly weren’t just following the crowd in their decision making.
In making my own choice, I could never claim to have read as much on the topic as either one of them did. Unsure where I stood, I consulted pediatricians and naturopaths, and speech pathologists and moms and moms and more moms, and ultimately I decided to vaccinate my own child based on my own issues with immunity and for the greater good of maintaining herd immunity in our communities. Still, I broke up her vaccines in to a modified schedule, visiting the doctor twice as frequently to insure that she never had more than two shots in a single visit, simply because it felt like a lot of stuff to inject into her little body at once. She’s now fully vaccinated, and I don’t discount that apprehension I felt as a new mom. It’s scary bringing a child in to this world — there are a million ways things can go wrong and the last thing you want to do is make a decision that contributes to those things. Feeling that way isn’t crazy, it’s parenthood. (If you’re interested in a modified schedule to ease your nerves, here’s a thoughtful breakdown of one way to spread out the shots while still having your child fully vaccinated.)
It may seem odd then, that I spent last week on Capitol Hill meeting with my representatives on behalf of Shot at Life, a group which fights and fundraises for vaccinations in third world countries. I did it because vaccines work, children are dying without them, and this world is a lot bigger than my privileged Los Angeles community where mosquito nets are thought of as a home decor item. It was an incredible experience, seeing how close we are to eradicating some of the world’s most deadly and destructive childhood diseases, and disheartening to simultaneously hear news reports of some of those very illnesses returning to the United States.
During my meetings last week with the UN Foundation, the issues of global vs. local vaccination were described as “apples and oranges” on the basis of choice itself. Here in the U.S., we have one, where as mothers in countries like Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Nigeria will often walk for hours with exhausted children for a chance at receiving the thirteen cent vaccine because their children will quite literally die without it. As a southern Californian with many around me who have maintained a strong stand against vaccination, I wanted to accept that answer, because socially it was a more comfortable choice. But as formerly “eradicated” diseases make their reappearances in this country, I can’t help but ignore the fact that we’re a global community: Diseases that exist anywhere, exist everywhere, and the responsibility to squash them falls to each and every one of us. We don’t have the luxury of choice. Not until all of these diseases are gone.
While in D.C. last week, I had the opportunity to speak with people who had been on the front lines of the global health war. (I call it a war because basic health is something people in many countries are fighting for every single day.) My friend Dennis Ogbe contracted polio as a 3-year-old in a small Nigerian village, and to this day his left leg is paralyzed. He walks without a cane or any assistance whatsoever and speaks calmly about the horrors of being a sick child in the third world. I met a former nurse from rural Mexico who recounted a story where a mother, unable to afford both a bus ticket home and a death certificate for her deceased child (rotovirus), was forced to place a blanket over her baby’s lifeless body and pretend he was “sleeping” for the three hour bus ride to her village where she could give him a proper burial. The nurse said that it wasn’t uncommon for mothers who gave birth in her clinic to refuse to file birth certificates for their children, because the inevitable expense of filing their death certificates was too much to bear.
In the wake of the Measles outbreak currently happening stateside, I’m hearing a lot of “anti-vaxxers” called “crazy” and “irrational”. It’s not crazy to ask questions about anything and everything when it comes to your children. I may disagree with my contemporaries who have chosen not to vaccinate their children, but pointing fingers and name calling when they’re simply doing their best to protect their children in the way they truly believe is right isn’t going to get us anywhere. It’s a natural instinct to question what we expose our babies to. Choosing not to vaccinate is a privilege we in the first world are falsely lulled into believing we have. But as the recent cross-continent outbreaks remind us, in a world where diseases can hop on an airplane as easy as a carry-on bag, we are all still at risk for each and every one of these debilitating diseases until they are eradicated worldwide. Saying goodbye to Polio on a global level is in reach as early as 2018 if we can keep new cases from popping up in continents where it was previously long dormant, but with each new headline that feels further and further from happening. We need to have a rational conversation about this. Global is local. Local is global. We’re all in this together.
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