This Will Only Hurt A Bit
My mom was an anti-vaxxer. I never thought much of it, the same way I never gave much thought to the echinacea, fish oil, and vitamin C combo that she used to treat most of the illnesses my 8 siblings and I experienced over the years. Ice water first thing in the morning and flax seeds frequently; don’t ask me why. We were healthy and homeschooled and didn’t have much time for doctors. When I was 8, I learned I’d had a heart murmur as a baby. Around the dinner table one night we laughed about the fact that it was supposed to be followed up on but my parents couldn’t remember if it ever was. I never wondered if my heart was okay because I could run pretty fast.
While homeschooled, I developed a voracious appetite for reading. But it wasn’t until later in life, after I’d decided to pursue a career in medicine, that I sat down to read the medical literature on vaccines. The summer before my junior year of college, I visited a travel clinic to prepare for my upcoming semester abroad in West Africa. Before traveling to Ghana, I was told, I needed to get the yellow fever vaccine and fill a prescription for anti-malarial pills. Shoot, I actually don’t have any vaccines so I probably shouldn’t start with yellow fever, I reasoned with myself. Which vaccines do you need? the middle-aged receptionist at the travel clinic asked me at my first pre-travel appointment. All of them? I replied, apologetically.
Originally, not getting vaccinated was what “natural” parents did, back in the 1990s when a falsified study had claimed vaccines were unsafe. As my mother has since passed away, there was no protest. I was never able to ask if her opinion would have changed as research evolved. (My dad didn’t fully understand why I wanted to travel to Africa, but he supported me, and I didn’t discuss getting vaccinated with him.) As a 9th grader entering the public school system for the first time — and, as one of nine kids, I was pretty much in charge of my own paperwork — I hastily signed religious exemptions. My siblings did, too, when they entered the public school system. I signed the same papers again when I headed off to college. Was my family really against vaccines on a religious basis? Was I? No, but it was easier to think so, and even if I’d wanted to I had no clue how to go about catching up on a lifetime of overdue shots.
When I decided to be a doctor, I realized not having been vaccinated probably wasn’t going to be ideal for my patients or for myself. In college, I tapped into my savings — I’d worked as a cashier during high school — to pay for the vaccinations. I couldn’t really spare the money for the shots I should’ve had as a child, but better than risking spreading infections between immunocompromised patients. My parents, I knew, had done what they thought best with the information they had at the time. Are parents doing the same today?
Now, as a physician and mother of two, I cringe at my former apathy and at the unfounded concerns of many parents. I get it — it’s easier to get riled up about cousin Mary’s coworker’s child who suspiciously developed sore throat and cough despite having her vaccines (“that shows it doesn’t work!”) than it is to get excited about a linear regression you may not fully understand. And when your newborn baby is stuck with a needle and screaming all afternoon, believe me, I know how much that tugs on your heartstrings.
After college and before medical school I landed a job in a prestigious research group. In that time I solidified my understanding of scientific inquiry and the varying strength of research studies. Over the years, I sort of forgot that others didn’t have that same training. I became pregnant with my first child in my third year of medical school and, already in the habit of doing so, turned to PubMed for various questions I had throughout my trimesters and beyond.
An important study out of Denmark this month adds to the wealth of information that make clear the benefits of the MMR vaccine far outweigh any risks. 650,000 children, and no increased in risk of autism with MMR vaccination. The 1998 study that worried some had twelve children. That’s 0.002% as many subjects as the Danish study. And, anyway, the 1998 study was deemed fraudulent and retracted, rejected by the worldwide medical community (the author is in fact serving jail time). Meanwhile, worldwide vaccination campaigns are estimated to have prevented 21.1 million deaths from measles just between 2000 and 2017.
I’m not sure how many religious exemption forms my siblings and I filled out over the years. Ironically, my religious beliefs now contribute even more to my pro-vaccination stance (I became a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints when I was 24). My belief that we are all siblings in a spiritual sense — children of a divinity — leaves me with even more of a sense of duty to the newborn that is too young for vaccines, to my patient with HIV, to the child whose leukemia prevents him from getting shots.
As a physician mom of two little girls, I’m thrilled to give them vitamins, supplements, and also their vaccines. I hope that as we continue to work to spread facts about vaccination rather than fears we can also educate about where to get information, and how to avoid making decisions based solely on emotion-laden anecdotes.
Lots of kids watch Daniel Tiger (mine maybe too much). Some of those kids get strep throat. But Daniel Tiger doesn’t cause strep throat.
This Will Only Hurt A Bit
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