When you’re a new mother, it’s easy to lose your voice in the cacophony of voices drowning yours out.
It’s not just the caterwauls of the screaming newborn — it’s the thousand and one people, most of whom you barely know, who have an overwhelming number of opinions they want to share with you on a whole host of subjects you’ve never stopped to consider before.
Should you eat sushi while pregnant? Should you get an epidural or birth naturally? Should you circumcise your child? Should you breastfeed or formula-feed? Use cloth diapers or disposable diapers? And how long should a baby remain rear-facing in a car seat, anyway?
And of course, there’s perhaps the most loaded question of them all: Should you vaccinate your child?
Support for the anti-vaccine, or “anti-vax” movement, is growing steadily in the United States, and as a result, many childhood illnesses once thought to be eradicated — like whooping-cough and measles — are on their way back in.
In 2004, there were 37 cases of measles in the United States. By 2014, there were 667. The number of children worldwide receiving the first dose of the measles vaccine has dropped by 6.1 percentage points in the past few years, leaving us teetering perilously below the percentage needed to achieve herd immunity.
Where did it all begin?
In 1998, Andrew Wakefield and 12 colleagues published a case series suggesting that the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) childhood vaccine may cause recipients to regress and develop autism.
Various epidemiological studies were published in the following years, again and again refuting any link between vaccines and autism, but the damage was already done. The number of children receiving the MMR vaccine began to drop radically.
Ten of the 12 authors of the series later retracted their contributions, and the journal that published it admitted that Wakefield had failed to disclose financial interests — his study turned out to be funded by lawyers engaged in pursuing lucrative lawsuits against vaccine producers.
In 2010, the publishing journal retracted Wakefield’s study altogether — and it was later demonstrated that Wakefield’s fraud was likely a deliberate one enacted for financial gain.
According to a 2011 paper published in the Indian Journal of Psychiatry, the Wakefield study “is likely to go down as one of the most serious frauds in medical history.”
Certainly Wakefield has blood on his hands for launching the anti-vax movement: 110,000 people a year die worldwide from measles despite the availability of a safe and cost-effective vaccine. The last time there was a major rubella epidemic in the United States in the 1960s, 11,000 pregnant women lost their babies and 2,100 newborns died. In 1952, 3,145 people died of polio. Before the whooping cough vaccine was readily available, 8,000 Americans a year died of the disease.
These are not childhood rites of passage. These are serious illnesses with serious consequences.
Make no mistake: It can be daunting for a new mother to look at her tiny baby and agree to have him painfully injected before her eyes. It can be harrowing for a new mother to read distorted reports on disreputable websites of “vaccine-injured” children.
Those who don’t understand how to vet a news source may feel compelled by such heartstring-tugging tales, but those who understand the difference between reliable and unreliable sources — between a peer-reviewed study and the opinion of a random stranger on the internet — know that the odds of your unvaccinated child dying from a painful, preventable early childhood disease are vastly higher than the minuscule chance of your vaccinated child suffering some sort of injury or allergic reaction.
Should everyone be vaccinated? No. Some people are too young to be vaccinated, too old or otherwise immunocompromised. These vulnerable individuals shouldn’t receive vaccines.
It’s precisely because of this that those of us who can be, should be — to keep herd immunity intact, to protect those who can’t protect themselves.
If I’ve learned anything as a parent, it’s that it’s important to trust your own inner voice.
But it’s equally important to learn which other voices to trust, to identify when your own inner voice is inadequate, and to believe others who have decades of scientific research under their belts and not those armed with armchair internet musings.
When you don’t vaccinate your children, you endanger vulnerable populations. As a parent, your right to personal autonomy ends where it endangers the rights of others, and you have no more right to not vaccinate your children than you do to drive drunk down I-10 at the peak of rush hour.
So arm yourself with real information, not misinformation. Instead of asking yourself, “Which vaccines should my child get?” ask yourself, “Which easily preventable and potentially fatal childhood illness do I want my child to get?”
Vaccinate your children, or someday you might not have the opportunity.
Donna Provencher is a reporter at The Kerrville Daily Times.