Love Your Neighbor. Get Your Vaccines.
A few days ago, my 4-year-old got three injections in his suntanned, still baby-dimpled arms. I read over the warnings, signed my approval, and held him as he set his little face, determined to be brave, then cried when he felt the pinch. Yesterday, my husband and I bared our own arms to get tetanus boosters and the first in a series of three hepatitis A/B vaccines.
I'm one of the moms you might expect to oppose vaccines. We try to eat local and organic, don't watch television, homeschool our kids, and wear natural fibers. My son was born into a birthing tub with a midwife present. But in November we're also moving to Malawi, where diseases like polio, typhoid, tetanus, and cholera are not theoretical. We need those vaccines.
When I type "vaccines" into Google's search engine, it auto-completes with "vaccines and autism," thus summing up what more than a fifth of Americans believe, despite the fact that study after study shows no link between vaccines and autism. More and more educated, middle-class parents are choosing not to vaccinate. As the New York Times Motherlode blog recently noted:
"in one Washington State county, 72 percent of kindergartners and 89 percent of sixth graders are either not compliant with or exempt from vaccination requirements for school entry, and at a Bay Area Waldorf school … only 23 percent of the incoming kindergarten class had been fully vaccinated."
An acquaintance once confided to me that she had chosen not to allow her daughter (who was then in first grade) to be vaccinated. "Since everyone else is vaccinated," she said, "my daughter doesn't really need to be."
And actually, that's kind of true. Vaccinations work on the theory of "herd immunity": As long as most people in a given population are immune, the risk of susceptible people getting sick is very small. So people who can't be immunized because they are too young (newborn babies), too old, too sick (people with immune system problems), and people for whom immunizations simply didn't "take," are protected by the immunity of the "herd," namely, those of us who got our shots.
As with any medical treatment, vaccination carries a level of risk that is, for most people, justified by the benefit that such vaccines provide (my great-grandmother spent more than a year recovering from influenza in 1918). One NPR reporter suggested that vaccine suspicion is a function of their success: If the threat of death or permanent damage from polio, influenza, diphtheria, mumps, or whooping cough seems more remote than the possibility of an adverse reaction from a vaccine, that's proof positive that vaccines have done their job. Those old enough to remember getting a drop of polio vaccine on a sugar cube also remember that polio was (and is) not merely theoretical.