The recent spate of measles cases traced to Disneyland (my sense of poetic justice is amused) has brought the issue of vaccination into the news. When my son was little, I was totally OK with the vaccines that were recommended at the time. Now I’m not so sure. Let me explain….
One of my childhood memories is looking over my father’s shoulder at the records he kept of my vaccinations. I apparently received a whole pile of them on the day I was born: I must have been a little pincushion. I was glad that it happened when I was a baby, so that I didn’t remember it.
When my son was born in 1985, the vaccine regime hadn’t changed much. The vaccines were the same as I had seen in my childhood records:
- Oral polio vaccine
- Diphtheria/pertussis/tetanus (DPT)
- Measles/mumps/rubella (MMR)
I remember that there was an organization of parents whose children had not reacted well to the DPT shot, but the numbers of children affected overall were vanishingly small, so I had no objections to vaccinating my son.
A little later, a vaccine came out for:
- Haemophilus influenzae type B (HiB) (interesting that it doesn’t have a simple name in English like the others)
and my son received it.
A vaccine for;
- Varicella (chicken pox)
came out a little later, but my son had already had chicken pox, so he didn’t need it.
But time and Big Pharma have moved on, and the recommended vaccine lineup now includes, in addition to all of the previous:
- Hepatitis A
- Hepatitis B
- Pneumococcal disease
- Infliuenza (‘flu shot’)
- Meningococcal disease
I’m compelled to wonder if it’s all necessary. Other than the flu, I’ve never heard of the diseases and viruses in the post-1980s group representing public health problems. And I have to wonder if there is a point of diminishing returns where the side effects of the vaccines become worse than the diseases they are intended to prevent.
I had a case of the chicken pox when I was six; my son had it when he was eight. I’ve considered it somewhat of a rite of passage: this is what a ‘real disease’ feels like. A vaccine to prevent it seems more a convenience than a real public health necessity.
And then there is the specter of autism. We’re told that there was one study relating vaccines to autism; it was debunked and retracted; so don’t consider the possibility anymore. But one in 2000 children or so had something resembling autism in the 1970s, now it’s one in 68 in the US. And maybe vaccines didn’t have anything to do with it, but there are too many reports of parents seeing the spark die in their children’s eyes immediately following vaccination.
On one level, I don’t have to worry about this personally anymore. But sometime in the next 5-10 years (I hope), my son will get married and have children. I can’t advise him, as my parents might have advised me, not to worry and proceed with the usual series of vaccinations. (Indeed, I hadn’t asked my parents at the time, as I didn’t consider the matter to be controversial.)
Telling him to exercise judgement over which vaccines his child should receive isn’t a practical option either. The data he’d need for an informed decision aren’t readily available, and he’d likely get into arguments with his child’s doctor. But beyond that, New York state law requires children to be immunized against almost all of the diseases and viruses listed above (the exceptions today are Hepatitis A, rotavirus, influenza, and meningococcal disease), in order to attend school. One can assert a religious exemption, but it would have to apply to all vaccines, which isn’t prudent either.
I can’t get upset about parents who refuse vaccinations for their children. I live in New York City, and people come here from all over the world, some vaccinated, some not, and life goes on. Ultimately, access to clean water and proper sanitation is more important to public health than this or that vaccine. And if an enemy wanted to conduct biological warfare using some exotic virus, all the childhood vaccinations in the world wouldn’t help.
What was a simple and noncontroversial decision in the 1980s has become a minefield. And I don’t have any magic way out.