Monday, February 09, 2015

We Love Our Children Too

I can imagine nothing more challenging for a parent than to learn her child has an illness or condition that threatens his life. I've been blessed to have not been confronted with this, but I've been close to many families who did. 

This weekend,, Seattle's National Public Radio affiliate, ran a story about one of my former students, a boy named Owen, who was diagnosed with leukemia as an eight year old. I wrote about him here on the blog as he set out on three years of chemotherapy and other treatments. The Weinert family has been quite public about their gut-wrenching journey, one that no parent should have to take with a child. They always hope they are out of the woods, but must live in fear that they aren't.

One of the side-effects of chemo treatments is a suppressed immune system, such that patients become susceptible to contracting diseases against which he has been immunized. People like Owen count on what's called "herd immunity" to protect them from contagious diseases like measles, the idea being that if (as in the case of measles) 92-94 percent of a population is immunized, then those who cannot be, or whose immunizations have been rendered ineffective by something like chemo treatments, are protected. According to the article only five of Seattle's 69 public elementary schools meet that threshold.

Also according to the article, most of those who have opted their children out of vaccinations have done so due to a "personal belief" about vaccinations. This is the tense dividing line in our national discussion about vaccinations.

My own child is vaccinated, although I did resist the chicken pox vaccination when my daughter was young. It wasn't so much a principled position as a memory of having contracted the disease in my own youth. This was the 1960's, just as vaccinations were becoming common place, but I recall that some of our neighbors urged mom to hold a "chicken pox party" so that all the neighborhood kids could contract it at once. She declined. Our pediatrician was not happy with me. He told me stories about horrific chicken pox deaths he had witnessed and urged me anew with each passing appointment. Like I said, it wasn't really a big issue for me, one that didn't even rise to the level of discussing it with my wife, so when she one day found herself in the pediatrician's office, she agreed to a vaccination without batting an eye.

A couple years later, as chicken pox spread through her elementary school, she contracted it nevertheless, albeit likely in a milder form than she would have otherwise experienced. I don't know the  statistics, of course, but given the population with which she goes to school, I reckon she wasn't the only chicken pox vaccinated kid to contract and spread the illness. I've read that many of those who contracted measles in the recent California outbreak were likewise vaccinated. At the time I was mostly irritated that the chicken pox vaccine "didn't work." Today, I'm grateful that a child with a compromised immune system, like Owen, wasn't exposed.

I'm not going to pretend that I can speak for those who either refuse to immunize their children with vaccinations other than to point out that this is a very emotional topic on both sides because it has to do with our children's health. I understand that a large minority of parents have become convinced, for a variety of reasons, that there is great risk in immunizing their children. I've read the articles, I've listened to the reasons, but I remain convinced that vaccinations, despite their flaws, have saved thousands of lives. I'm happy my own child has been immunized both for her sake as well as the sake of the herd. I've also come to the realization that there is really nothing I can say or do to change their minds, so I'm staying out of that part of the back-and-forth. 

What I will point out is that the anti-vax message has succeeded to the point that we are reaching a threshold, like the one that has been reached in Seattle's elementary schools regarding measles, at which once rare diseases have an opening for a resurgence. This is why parents like the Weinerts are now starting to rise up and push back: we love our children too. I have been silent on this for too long, not wanting to offend parents who, honestly, are just doing the best they can. I don't wish anything bad upon them, but I also know that my silence, the silence of the majority, has allowed matters to proceed to this point. It's time to get this moving back in the other direction: that's how democracy works.

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Anonymous said...

Very, very well said. Thank you.

Becky said...

I completely agree with your article and don't know anything about measles in Seattle (being in NJ). But I just want to point out the statistic you quoted may not be as scary as it sounds. Parents who chose not to fully vaccinate have to sign a religious exemption letter that makes it appear their children are completely unvaccinated, when they may have just skipped flu and/or chicken pox, for example, as we did. Not sure if this is the case in Seattle, but just a little point.

Anonymous said...

The problem is the vaccines are losing effectiveness (like antibiotics). Look at the statistics, not the media! The lack of vaccinations has not changed sufficiently.

Allison said...

I teach in Victoria, Australia and it is mandatory for children to be vaccinated in order to attend Childcare, preschool and schools. As a community of parents of young children, we haven't experienced how truly awful these diseases can be and thank goodness Victoria has chosen to legislate on this matter for the herd, lest our collective memory allows the herd to wander astray.

Unknown said...

Those kids are very brave, indeed. I doubt that anyone twice their age can muster the same kind of inner reslience and strength, given the odds. I just hope that the medical treatments are kept consistent and maintained. Thanks for sharing such an inspiring post, Tom! All the best!

Aubrey Holloway @ Primary Care Associates

Jeff said...

Well said Tom. This is indeed a very emotional topic. My only issue is how the medical establishment still refuses to acknowledge the terrible side effects from vaccinations (even if the side effects are very rare) Our children have never received a shot for anything ever, and between them they very rarely get unwell. In fact they have never required medication of any kind. That being said I would gladly make sure they are not around a child with a comprised immune system. My problem is that bacteria and viruses evolve, and vaccinations are slowly becoming useless because of this (much like antibiotics). I wish that the medical establishment would recognize this and recognize that some children do have tragic reactions. Sadly a girl in my class has started having seizures within weeks of getting her first vaccinations. Of course the connection will be ignored. Honestly I do not know what the answer is, other than look into the facts for yourself. There is a lot of research on both sides from respectable researchers and others.

I have listened to Bill Gates in a TED lecture talk about how vaccinations are being used to "reduce" the world population. Not sure what he meant by this, but it scared me.

I would recommend everyone to listen to James Corbett's lecture on vaccinations on his website, very interesting stuff.

Anonymous said...

Sorry Allison, from Victoria Australia, but it is not mandatory for children to be vaccinated in order to attend school etc. you can obtain a conscientious objector form in lieu of immunisation records. We are still able to make informed choices for our children, I think though that it affects government payments to your family if you opt out.