Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Steph Gets Cranky About Vaccines

There are in fact two things, science and opinion; the former begets knowledge, the latter ignorance.
- Hippocrates

Yesterday I was asked:
"Don’t take this the wrong way, but did you receive a flu shot (while pregnant with Sybella)?"

The nature of this comment is wrong on so many levels. And it sparked an intense reaction in me that bubbled away all night. So I thought I'd write about it.

The answer is no. I didn’t. But only because I spent the majority of my pregnancy in the warmer months (September to April) and the flu vaccine isnt routinely administered at that time of the year in Australia.

But thank you, J, for your disclaimer ("don’t take this the wrong way") and very clear insinuation that IF I had gotten a flu shot, it may have caused Sybella to die. That made me feel great! Just load some guilt on top of my grief!

The issues surrounding vaccination are contentious ones. It is a passionate, opinionated debate. (Although I will come back to the issue of opinion later). There are usually three major parties when it comes to the subject of immunisation. Passionate pro-vaxxers, passionate anti-vaxxers, and people who vaccinate according to the government schedule without much thought about it.

Those who sit in the third category, I don’t take issue with you... I think it is commendable that you pertain to the schedule and trust your medical caregiver. Thank you for protecting your children, and mine. But it is many (not all) of the anti-vaxxers that will try and coerce this group (mostly through uncivilised means) and make sweeping statements that ALL pro-vaxxers are blind followers of government schedules, medical advice and behave like sheep...or lemmings. Sometimes I feel that anti-vaxxers think we ALL sit in the third category. Not that I think those in the third category are blind followers, I dont. But it just seems to be what the anti-vaxxers cling to when trying to put their point across...the fact that vaccinators "havent done the research." They beseech us to look into it, assuming that we havent already. I will put most of my money on the fact that those who vaccinate without question do so because of the correct information that is already out there circulating and being advertised by reputable health professionals. Which DOES make you informed. Lets hope this positive information continues to circulate.

Amy McKay Cooper responded to an anti-vaxxer who questioned her, my and other pro-vaxxer's knowledge of vaccines and their effects with the following comment:

"It is the worst opinion out there that people who are pro-vaccination are "uneducated", "unopen to the truth", "lacking in common sense", or a myriad of other more than vaguely insulting talking points. We have read the studies, pondered their implications, listened to authorities, weighed them against our own understanding, thought critically and arrived at our own thoughtful conclusions based on the best evidence. We are not ignorant, closed, mindless followers, or uncritical. You don't have anything over on us... We just think you are wrong. And we think so because the preponderance of peer-reviewed, methodologically strong, replicable, evidence-based medicine from a variety of sources all over the globe point us in that direction."

I take huge issue with the assumption from anti-vaxxers that my beliefs are unsubstantiated, uneducated and lack intelligence.
I sit firmly and proudly in the first category and have been strong believer in vaccines since 1992. Yep, I was 12. Since then, I have researched, studied, questioned vaccines and the immunisation schedule, becoming more and more interested in the topic as time went on.

In the months after Sybella died, I found myself becoming a fully fledged advocate, amping up my research, participating in groups and forums, speaking with paediatricians and general practitioners. I was motivated from an emotional standpoint by the story of Carter Dube, a 6 week old baby, who died from the respiratory complications of Pertussis, prior to being of an age where he could receive his first batch of vaccines. Luckily, I had the facts and scientific knowledge to back up my emotive argument also.

I will warn you now though, if you do not believe in vaccines, this post is not an invitation to debate the pros and cons, so don’t worry about posting your opinions. Not that I don’t want to hear them, am not open to them, or am scared that you will prove me "wrong." On the contrary. I have enough knowledge and education and facts up my sleeve to be able to debate any anti-vaxxer. But I am burnt out from my conversation yesterday with the person who questioned whether I had a flu shot while pregnant, I am cross, and so I am venting. That is the purpose of this post.

The fact of the matter is, vaccines are a community health issue. In my world, there is no room for diplomatic conversations about choice and opinion when it comes to immunisation. It isnt like birth choices, or breast feeding vs. formula, where parents should mind their own business and leave each other to do what is best for them, their child and their personal situation. Sounds harsh. I know. And I am SURE to get a few heckles up, I am aware of that.
My personal disclaimer is that I have NO DOUBT that ALL parents that have certain opinions about vaccines are acting in the best interest of their child. They love their child/ren, want them to stay safe and healthy, and I respect that. But when your choice not to vaccinate impacts on me, my child, or my unborn baby, then I get cross. Especially when you assume I haven’t done the research and label me ignorant. Especially when you imply that my choice TO be vaccinated played a role in my daughter's stillbirth.

Herd immunity is a very serious issue. Right now, in NSW, herd immunity sits at approximately 83% (total of immunised people at any one time). Rates need to be above 95% for a vaccine to be effective. This is because vaccines themselves are approximately 70-90% effective. If our herd immunity is 95%, then the fact that vaccines don’t offer 100% protection is negligible. The remaining 5% of unvaccinated individuals should only be those who are immune-compromised, newborn, elderly, or cannot be vaccinated for reasons pertaining to anaphylaxis. Therefore, herd immunity protects these people.
Then there is the issue of “free-riding.” The article “Parental Decision-Making in Childhood Vaccination” by Lucy Serpell and John Green states: “If parents feel that others vaccinating reduces the risk of their child being infected, then they may feel that they need not vaccinate their own child as long as local vaccine coverage is good.”
However, local vaccine coverage is getting lower and lower, because of bogus, unsubstantiated claims by anti-vaccine websites. Anti vaccination sites scare me. They terrify me. I read the claims that come from such obscure, tiny studies that make broad, sweeping statements and factually inaccurate declarations and shudder at the ease at which these assertions are swallowed. The worst one so far was that the recent outbreak of Pertussis in California was caused by seasonal pesticides. Bordetella Pertussis is a bacterial infection. Not environmental. That is not an opinion. It is a scientific fact. No dispute.

Then there is the age old MMR and Autism debate. This needs to die. Seriously.

There has been reputable studies disproving the claim that the MMR vaccine (Measles, Mumps, Rubella) causes Autism. It has been undeniably quashed, both by medical and scientific studies, that state there is no causal relationship between the MMR vaccine and Autism. And let’s not forget Andrew Wakefield, who was stripped of his medical license due to his paper, discredited, for its claims that the MMR vaccine caused Autism.
“But why are there so many Autistic kids now?” the anti-vaxxers cry. The answer: There ARENT. There are the same number as ever before. It is simply that in today's education and social system, Autism is much more salient than ever. Being a teacher, I can tell you that today’s education focuses on hands-on, exploratory, discovery learning. Children work in groups, in a variety of settings, with a variety of strategies. They are encouraged to make student –based decision, utilise autonomy and take responsibility for their learning. Autistic kids DO NOT thrive in this setting. Autistic children thrive on routine, repetition, methodical learning, and teacher-led choices. And so they stand out. However, they did not stand out twenty, thirty or forty years ago, when education consisted of sitting rows, rote learning, copying arithmetic off the chalkboard, reading the same book over and over. Autism is not more prevalent, but it IS more understood and awareness is more developed and advanced. Parents of Autistic children I have taught say the same thing: “My child had something different about him/her from birth.” And that child’s siblings, who grew up with the same parents, breastfed for the same amount of time, in the same environment, with the same vaccine schedule, do not have Autism. This puts the whole causal link debate to rest.

Mercury. Thimerosol. To those who question HOW I can inject my baby with such horrid toxins, I ask you:

Do you eat fish?

If the answer is yes, then you ingest Methyl mercury. Methyl mercury is a neurotoxin, found in fish that are high in the marine food chain. Methyl mercury accumulates in the body and takes a long time to break down and be emitted via waste. Ethyl mercury, however, leaves the body almost immediately. It is NOT a neurotoxin.Which is lucky, because it is Ethyl mercury, not Methyl mercury that is used in SOME flu vaccines…although this argument is negligible too, because Ethyl mercury hasn’t been used in a childhood vaccine in Australia since 2000, anyway.

Okay, so vaccines aren’t perfect. There will be side effects, and protection rates for individual vaccines are not 100%
Dr Paul Offit, an infectious disease and vaccine expert, author, and Director of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia wrote:

"I would make the case that a choice not to get vaccines is not a risk free choice. Rather, it’s a choice to take a different and far more serious risk."

I know I take a risk with immunisation: But it’s a lower risk than contemplating any of these options:
  • My son being permanently sterilized from Mumps.
  • My son suffering Encephalitis from a case of the Measles.
  • My son contracting Septicemia from a Varicella blister.
  • My unborn baby suffering blindness, deafness and brain damage in the case of myself being exposed to Rubella during pregnancy.
  • My newborn attached to tubes and monitors, struggling to breathe because he/she contracted Whooping Cough from an unvaccinated individual who hadn’t had their TDaP booster.
Why am I banging on about vaccines on a stillbirth site, you ask?
One part of Sybella's legacy is my voice. My calm, but firm voice. About matters pertaining to my heart. My courage of conviction. I'm just lucky that when it comes to vaccination, not only can I put forward views form my heart, but also those from science and medicine.

Sybella. What a winner. She's changed me. I'm not afraid anymore.


  1. Very well said! I take my hat off to you. Mel.

  2. I'm not afraid any more either. Stillbirth will do that to you - give you a strength you did not think you had. To be honest, I almost sit in the third group. I vax, and I don't give it much thought. My husband is a nurse, and he would never have it any other way (as he's seen far too much in his job) so I just went along, got the vaccines and that's that. Anti-vax people - go on, shoot me. Truth of the matter is, I'm more likely to have another stillborn baby than have a baby who has a negative side effect to a vaccine. We all seem to be worried and scared of the wrong things. Like the doctors cramming home the risk of listeria poisoning to you in pregnancy, which is so, so unlikely to happen, yet no one tells you about kick counts and how vital they can be to saving your baby's life at the end of an otherwise very healthy and normal pregnancy.
    The vax debate was just one aspect of motherhood I had no idea that people were so passionate about. I guess because I am so new to parenting, with Angus being only one, it is all still a learning game for me.
    I breastfeed fully (Angus has never had formula in his life) I use cloth nappies and I have a very gentle approach to parenting, but I vax, and it is as simple as that. Sometimes I think on that point alone it ousts me from any type of "natural parenting group" out there, as this seems to be the hottest issue out there.
    Thanks for posting this, and the link on FB today and sharing your thoughts. I'm glad you're using your voice in this way.

  3. Amazing post Steph.
    *applauds loudly*
    Im currently pregnant with my third baby and as it stands Im non-immune to Chicken Pox. I freaked. Not because I could get rather ill, but because I assumed this would affect my unborn baby in some way.
    Im pro-vaccination. My two childrens schedules are up to date and Im confident I have done my part in preventing illness in newborn babies & unborn babies and their mothers.
    Great post :)

  4. I should also add I was non-immune to Measles when pregnant with my second, soon after he was born I was immunisd again and I plan on being immunised for Chicken Pox soon after this babe arrives too ;)

  5. Thank you for such a clear, well thought out post. I work in pathology and see pregnant mothers who don't vaccinate yet are in a panic when their child has chicken pox or measles symptoms. I also have just over two years of ttc and one miscarriage behind me. Yet the thought of never having my own child does not scare me as much as the thought of having a healthy pregnancy only to contract Rubella because unfortunately I'm one of the few who don't respond to the vaccine. This scenario is becoming a very real possibility in the face of decreasing herd immunity.

  6. Hi Kiara, thanks for your affirmation! I feel your pain regarding TTC and am terribly sorry to hear of your miscarriage.
    Decreasing herd immunity is such a terrifying issue, you are right. Let's hope that adovcating for vaccination will help educate people and boost rates. I know our family will be 'cocooning' when our new baby is born to protect against pertussis. Blessings x