One of my colleagues over at Being Pregnant has just written a passionate post about the 5 worst myths about unvaccinated kids.
She makes the case that vaccination is a very personal decision, and one that every family should be free to make on their own. Her goal is to debunk myths like “parents who don’t vaccinate don’t really love their kids” and “your unvaccinated child will make my kid sick”.
The thing is, while a lot of her particular arguments are good, she’s missing the larger point. Vaccination isn’t just a personal decision. It’s also a public health issue.
I’m not a typical cheerleader for vaccines. I delayed vaccination with both of my daughters, skipping some entirely and spacing others out. I made sure the kids each got one shot at a time, so that we could carefully watch for any adverse reaction. Along the way, though, I read a lot about vaccines: their history, how they work, why they’re so controversial and why they’re so important. In particular, the book Vaccine was great. Written by a journalist who starts out without a strong opinion about vaccination, it covered all sides the issue in a really thoughtful, honest way.
Here are some things I’ve come to believe about vaccination:
1. Vaccination is a public health issue. It doesn’t simply affect your child, it also affects the community you live in. Not because your unvaccinated baby is a disease carrier. She’s probably not. But lowering the vaccination rate in a given population gives vaccine preventable illnesses a chance to get a foothold and spread. Vaccines aren’t perfect; sometimes a vaccinated child or adult will contract measles or pertussis when an outbreak occurs.
2. Vaccination is a privilege. So is choosing not to vaccinate. When I chose not to vaccinate my daughters for their first two years, I was relying on the herd immunity of a well-vaccinated community to protect them from coming into contact with vaccine-preventable illnesses. That’s a privilege of living in the developed world where everyone around me has ready access to vaccines and most people use them. A privilege that makes the risk of vaccine injury seem terrifyingly real and the risk of my kid dying of measles seem distant and implausible.
3. Not vaccinating is expensive. One of the reasons the risks of vaccination can seem to outweigh the risks of not vaccinating is that we have ready access to medical care. An illness, like pertussis, that would kill a child in the developing world is likely to merely make an American kid very sick. But treating just one case of pertussis can cost tens of thousands of dollars in medical bills, not to mention lost time at work and school for the affected family.
4. Choosing not to vaccinate puts the most vulnerable members of a population at risk. There are times when you can’t vaccinate yourself or your child, due to medical constraints. If you’re immune-compromised, or pregnant, or already ill, you’re also likely to be less resilient should you become sick. The people who can’t be vaccinated are relying on the herd immunity of those around them.
5. Vaccinating American kids helps the developing world. The economics and politics of vaccine production and distribution are very complex. When drug companies make a vaccine, they count on being able to sell it to American and European markets. If it’s not profitable here, they won’t produce it for export to places like Africa and India where it might be more badly needed. Likewise, if a vaccine is not adopted here for political reasons, governments elsewhere are likely to follow our lead.
6. Vaccines are safer than you think. While it’s true that vaccines can injure and even kill young children, it’s very rare. The purported link between vaccines and autism has been solidly debunked. The pertussis vaccine that caused brain injury in so many kids of my generation has been replaced with a safe version. Allergic reactions and serious illnesses do occur, but the risks are small and getting smaller all the time.
7. Most unvaccinated kids will be just fine. In the U.S., vaccine preventable illnesses remain quite rare. Odds are, your kid will never be exposed to them. If by chance your child did become sick, she’d have good medical care available. You have the luxury of choice. I’ve just outlined a number of compelling reasons to vaccinate your children, but I know there are strong reasons to delay or refuse vaccines as well. Stephanie wrote a moving post today about how her personal experience with vaccine injury made the decision for her: no vaccines for her kids. Good parents need to weigh their risks and options, and ultimately need to choose what’s right for their family.
It’s hard to cut through all the rhetoric on both sides and get good facts about the risks and benefits of vaccination. The more I study it, though, the more persuaded I am that vaccines are worth the risk. Not only do they protect your family’s health, but vaccinating yourself and your kids helps protect others in the community as well.
What do you think? Do you vaccinate? Is it any of your business if your neighbors do?