“What I hope to do, and have had some success at times in doing, is persuading the fence sitters, parents who have heard the pseudoscience of the antivaccine movement and have become frightened enough to consider not vaccinating.”
—Orac, Respectful Insolence “’Dr. Bob Sears’: Perfecting the Art of the Anti-vaccine Dog Whistle”
When I first started writing this essay, I was responding to reports of a whooping cough epidemic in California in 2010. Something sidetracked me, most likely in the form of my offspring and its ever-present demands. However, “thanks” to the cult of anti-vaccination, I no longer have to worry about being irrelevant when it comes to outbreaks of preventable diseases. Another one is right around the corner, as is some new conspiracy regarding the government, Big Pharma, and SCIENCE all converging in a jabby vial of poison wielded for profit and mind control. Due to their vaccine deferrals and refusals, outbreaks of pertussis and measles continue in America, including Measles in the Magic Kingdom!
I do not want a Fastpass for that ride.
Back in the late ’90’s, a friend of mine who works the renaissance festivals told me that the kid in the trailer up from her had whooping cough, and I said, “Whooping cough? What is this, 1936?*” She said, “Yeah, they don’t believe in vaccination.” “WHAT?! Stupid fucking hippies.”
Then in 2008, I had a baby; an extreme preemie, as a matter of fact, and by that time these stupid fucking hippies had a platform and a celebrity spokesperson and organizations and propaganda and bogus medical studies to point their fingers at, and the news media was reporting on the controversy like it was, you know, actually a controversy. I fell into their emotional, fear-mongering worm hole. These stupid fucking hippies were now educated white liberals with crunchy ideas about parenting just like me! And I was all about the crunch, to the extent that I found myself agonizing over vaccinations.
It’s highly embarrassing, and I cringe at the me who left the NICU weeping because my infant was getting one—and ONLY ONE—vaccination. For pertussis.
I cringe at that woman, who I am certain caused eye-rolling and deep sighs from her team of doctors and nurses when she expressed her ludicrous concerns. Who decided that she somehow knew better than the highly-educated experts whose job it is to know about these things. I cringe at her, cherry-picking evidence to believe something she had, for some reason, decided she wanted to believe: that vaccinations would somehow corrupt her tiny, defenseless infant. I wanted to be afraid; in the midst of the real terror I was already experiencing, I chose a fear that led me to have some sense of control. I could say “no” to All The Vaccines.
This is just to say, I understand the fear some parents are feeling; I understand all too well. And I don’t have anything nice to say about it at all now, nor should I. Nor should anyone. The anti-vaccination movement spouts dangerous lies and engages in wrong-headed thinking, encouraging parents to alter or abstain from the recommended vaccine schedule without an evidence-based, medical reason to do so. They can’t hide in the herd anymore because they have infected the herd with their nonsense, lunacy, and fear mongering, and the herd is losing its immunity.
“Natural” is alluring. I went all woo-crunchy for awhile, going with what “sounded good” or “felt right.” I was staggeringly careful with my pregnancy and my home environment. I didn’t pump gas, go near the litterboxes, or eat soft cheese or deli meats or sushi or do anything remotely fun. I got rid of “toxic” personal products. I read the “green pregnancy” books.
I still had a preemie.
When Finn was a baby, I relied a lot on advice found in Mothering forums, magazines, articles, and books. I read the Dr. Sears Vaccine Book, taking copious notes in the cafe of the NICU, and even passed the bloody thing on to a friend (I have since recycled it). I practiced some attachment parenting with my son: we co-slept often, didn’t cry-it-out, and nursed well into the toddler years. (These last choices I do not see as detrimental; they worked for our family and for our son.)
I get that it’s scary to be have a kid, be a parent, transform into a family. You have a whole new life to nurture; it’s your job to create a well-adjusted member of society who will contribute in a positive way to the common good. That’s no easy task.
Modern life seems complicated. It’s hectic and busy and overwhelming. The news is terrifying. We can feel removed from nature and from our emotions by technology and ever-increasing demands on our time and skills. We are removed from criticism and truth by creating our cozy little Internet echo chambers. We are isolated by time and science from the physical reality of vaccine-preventable illnesses and the suffering that accompanies them because so few actually remember it.
We want to get back some control, take the reins on a life we feel is subjugated to work, money, and possessions, so we go “natural.” We embrace the idea that it was better in the past, and we long for the “good old days.” This isn’t new. But now, we’ve elevated instinct above education on so many levels, actually devaluing the role of the expert, and replacing it with the ridiculous icon of the Warrior Mommy with Google as her Guide.
It’s an expression of privilege to feel this particular sense of removal and fear. When you don’t have to worry about putting food on the table or that your family will be ruined forever if someone gets into an accident or falls ill, you can worry that the CDC is in collusion with Big Pharma and Monsanto to vaccinate GMO mosquitos with aborted human fetal cells to create a super race of shills. Not having the everyday worries simply regarding survival, you have the luxury to wallow in false fears and descend into a chaos of your own making.
My 2-pound baby is now a second grader, vibrant and kind and fully-vaccinated on schedule. I came around, soon after he was out of the hospital and we had gone to a couple of pediatrician appointments. Our doctor was nice about spacing his vaccinations out, but I’m sure she was internally eye-rolling and sighing at us. It’s how I look back at me, if you add a touch of rage.
Why the rage? I’ll take responsibility for buying to the fear-mongering and the manufactured controversy, but I’m angry at the media for reporting on it for so long as if there were truly two sides the the story. I’m angry at the parents who peddled this nonsense, moving the goalposts, cherry-picking, and accusing anyone who disagrees with them of being “sheeple.” They are still at it, and if anything, they have gotten worse as their arguments continue to be dismantled, the media reports on facts rather than hysteria, states begin to crack down on vaccine exemptions, and a major film festival decides not to show an anti-vax “documentary.”
I wish I had better documented how I came out of my fugue and got back on track, but I know it has something to do with who I was before I became pregnant, that person who was appalled at the idea that someone could “not believe in vaccines.” That person eventually sat down with the all mighty Google and decided to do some poking around. Because my default state seems to be skepticism, which I was misapplying during my months of fear, once the fog cleared, and my son was safe (thanks to science-based medicine), my questioning nature reasserted itself and turned inward. It led me to look into the modern anti-vaccine movement and its methods. I found science blogging sites like “Respectful Insolence,” “Science-Based Medicine,” and “Neurologica.”
I put the Orac quote at the beginning because I hope the same thing: that he and others can have some success with the fence sitters. He certainly did help me find my way back to sanity and the value of science-based medicine. I fear that not much can be done with the strong core of anti-vac fundies, but we can advocate for stronger rules on vaccine exemptions, and make sure our elected officials are not only hearing the voices of the fear mongers. We can listen to friends or family who express concerns that are based in the fear cloud of the anti-vaccine movement and gently steer them back to reason. We can share the growing number of resources offering general science information and humorous woo-debunking. Hopefully, it will be in small increments and not more outbreaks that we continue to turn the tide.
*147.237 reported cases of pertussis in 1936. In 1976, there were 1,010, and in 2014, there were 32, 971 reported cases. That’s the wrong direction.