When I was growing up, everyone in my family knew that I was the only one who had been properly vaccinated. Esther had been mostly-properly-vaccinated, and the younger kids had never had the pertussis vaccination. This didn’t mean much to me, until I was in high school.
I don’t remember which grade I was in, maybe tenth, but at some point a note was sent home (that I never got), that everyone needed to take antibiotics, because someone in school (or someone in school’s sibling) had had whooping cough. Probably, they still had whooping cough at that moment – it isn’t a cough that goes away quickly.
As mentioned, I didn’t get the notice. I don’t remember how we found out that I hadn’t gotten the notice, but I do remember that my mother blamed me for bringing pertussis into the house and not taking precautions to make sure no one would get sick. As I write this, the anger at being blamed for the family’s illness comes back to me. I didn’t get the notice, I didn’t do it on purpose, and I certainly didn’t deserve to have all of my siblings blaming me for something that could have been prevented, if my parents had vaccinated them.
Obviously, as it usually goes, those who are not vaccinated suffer the most – and the younger you are, the worse it is. I don’t remember if my parents had pertussis; I do remember that of my siblings, Noach and I had the lightest cases. Noach was about 7, Shira was 4, and Ari was two, I think. Esther was 12, maybe 13, but she had the worst case, because it was complicated by a preexisting heath condition (which, for privacy reasons, I will not name now). Esther, by the way, always a copy of my mother, blamed me for the fact that she was sick and lost her summer job, a few times a day, for about a year.
At any rate, this is getting off topic.
People who don’t vaccinate make me mad. Herd immunity is one of the major reasons that vaccinations work, and without herd immunity, even vaccinated people can sometimes get very sick. This is because the vaccination does not work 100% on everyone. Some people get the vaccination and are only 80% immunized. If everyone around them is also vaccinated, the herd immunity protects everyone, and no one gets sick. If enough people in the community aren’t vaccinated, an epidemic will break out, putting even the responsible, vaccinated population at risk.
In addition to this, no one is immunized until they finish the vaccination schedule, at about a year and a half (or age 6 for measles, mumps, and rubella). This means that, especially for babies who don’t breastfeed (and therefore have no immunity at all for the first three or four months, and do not receive any helpful antibodies to aid their immune systems afterwards), those who are not vaccinated are a huge threat, not just to their health, but to their lives. Even those who do breastfeed are at risk, especially if they were born prematurely, and even if they are still in the relative sterility of the NICU. Tara Hills, in her article on how she went from being against vaccines to being absolutely in favor of them, says it beautifully: “But in the four highly contagious days before any symptoms show we easily could have passed on our infection to my sister’s toddlers or her 34-week-old son in the NICU.”
In other words, to put it very bluntly, if you choose not to vaccinate, you are putting many innocent lives at risk, not just your own kids’.
That’s a lot of responsibility; unfortunately, many anti-vaccine parents don’t see it that way, and refuse to see it that way. Probably because it would burst their “better-and-more-natural-than-you” bubble.
From what I’m writing, most of you probably assume that I unblinkingly, unthinkingly, give my kids any vaccine out there, without asking questions. This, I must say, is not true. I do not completely trust the varicella vaccine, nor am I convinced that it is necessary for everyone. I do agree, however, that for certain populations it is probably recommended. And about the HPV vaccine – new, barely-tested, and a good part of the risks avoidable by teaching teens responsibility – let’s just say that each person can make their own decision, and as long as this does not become a required vaccine, I will keep my peace. But there is a huge difference between the routine vaccinations – for diseases that literally spread like plagues, often with disastrous results – and the HPV vaccine, for a disease that in most cases (admittedly, not all) can be avoided by proper monitoring and taking responsibility . . . and is not spread through coughs, air, or random handshakes.
About a year and a half ago, there was a polio outbreak here in Israel (brought here, of course, by some Arab who came from the grossly unsanitary conditions present when the Muslims gathered in Mecca). At some point, the Ministry of Health told everyone to get OPV – the oral polio vaccine, consisting of a live, but weakened, virus. Even those who received IPV (the dead, or inactivated, polio vaccine) were supposed to get OPV.
When I did some research, I found out that the push to get OPV was not so that the person vaccinated would not get polio, but in order to ensure it could not be passed on. As it turns out, polio, like group B streptococcus, can live in a [vaccinated] person’s gut without harming them; however, if it passed to someone who was not immunized, that person would get infected, and probably sick, as well. If we had had an young baby at that time, I probably would have gone out and gotten all of us immunized with OPV. However, we did not have a baby at that point, and I saw no reason to give my kid a live virus so that people who chose not to immunize their kids would not have to suffer. At the end of the day, I reasoned, those who are the biggest threat to society’s health are not about to run out and give their kid IPV, much less OPV. True, there are those with compromised immune systems, there are the elderly, there are the babies. But we don’t have contact with too many of those people, and if the virus was passed on, it would be by someone else, not by us directly. So, Shlomo did not get OPV. Was I irresponsible and thoughtless? Probably. But a live vaccine is a big thing, and if everyone had had IPV, the OPV wouldn’t be necessary. Even a dead, inactivated, vaccine can cause side effects, and if I am taking that risk, I don’t think that I need to take the live virus risk – not the risk of the actual disease because of a lack of herd immunity, and not to try to compensate for that lack of herd immunity.
When I asked one of my cousins if she was going to give her kid OPV, she said, “No, he doesn’t go to gan [hint: unlike your kid], and I don’t live in the south [hint: unlike you].” Which just proved to me that she hadn’t done her homework – polio had been discovered in the sewage in the center of the country by that point, as well; and just playing with one friend’s dirty toys, or touching his dirty hands if they hadn’t been thoroughly washed after he pooped, was enough to infect him. If that wasn’t enough, she was seven months pregnant – her new baby wasn’t about to be vaccinated any time soon, either.
As it turns out, thank G-d, the polio scare passed without too many problems, on both a personal and national level, thank G-d. The OPV was largely understood to be a highly protective, preventive measure, and there was a question if it was truly necessary.
A few months after Shlomo was born, Esther said, “Did you give him the pertussis vaccine?” I told her yes – since we were kids, the vaccine has changed. Plus, no matter what, it’s better to get the vaccine than the disease – and pertussis is one of those very nasty diseases that still pops up quite a few times a year. True, Esther’s health was negatively influenced by the pertussis vaccine (and it’s not certain if the vaccine was the cause, the trigger, or completely unrelated); but it is also true that she was never fully immunized, and that she ended up getting the actual disease – and suffering the consequences – in the end, anyways. Isn’t it better to just get the vaccine?
By the way, as it turns out, people need a DTaP booster as adults, too. Once, when we were in a clinic because Shlomo was throwing up, there was a kid next to us with a distinctive whooping cough. I asked the mother if he had had his immunizations, and she said he had had all but one. When I asked which one – she didn’t know. We moved away from them, and later that week, Yitzchak and I went to get DTaP shots (Shlomo was about a year old at the time, and his shots were recent enough that he was protected). As it turns out, this was helpful in more ways that just the obvious one: When I was pregnant with Tova, the nurse told me to get a pertussis shot. Always wary of vaccinations during pregnancy, I asked Mom, who, at first, told me that I should get the vaccine; when I told her I’d had one in January 2012, she told me that it was recent enough to give Tova my IgG without having to get a vaccination while pregnant – and she also told me that she tried to get her vaccinations while not pregnant, for this exact reason.
What I did just realize is that when Esther has a baby, she probably will not vaccinate the kid against pertussis – which means that I don’t want my kids coming in contact with hers until they have been fully immunized and have had recent enough booster shots that I won’t have to worry. Luckily, because Esther doesn’t live too close to me, this won’t be too much of a problem to pull off. Hmmm . . . does that mean I don’t want any of my siblings near my kids, until I know my kids are fully vaccinated? But maybe not, because they all got pertussis – not the shot, but the disease. I guess it doesn’t matter, because it all amounts to the same thing: not to travel unless we are all up-to-date and not in need of booster shots. Maybe this is why the concept of vaccinations before traveling exists?
Please, everyone, vaccinate your kids. The entire time I was pregnant with Shlomo, I was worried about getting rubella. At the beginning of the pregnancy, the blood tests showed that I wasn’t immune, even though my mother insisted that I got both doses (and even if I don’t always believe my mother, you can’t get into the school system where I was in first grade without being up-to-date). At some point, there was a notice in my college (again, while I was pregnant with Shlomo) that everyone should check their vaccination records, because there had been a case or two of measles. As soon as I could after having Shlomo, I went with him to one of his well-baby appointments and got myself an MMR vaccination. Thankfully, since then, I have tested my levels twice, and each time, the IgG value went up a bit, so that now I am fully immunized.
I think that everyone who didn’t receive the necessary vaccinations needs to make sure that those around them know to keep away – especially pregnant (or potentially pregnant) women, young children, babies, and anyone with any kind of medical issue – even just a flu. Outbreaks of infectious diseases happen every few years; for some diseases, every year. And they always start in communities that have high numbers of people who are too good for the vaccine – white, richer, more skeptical of the “outside world”,you name it. Let’s stop trying to convince ourselves that vaccines are the cause of so many of today’s ails, and accept the fact that they have very effectively prevented thousands, if not millions, of hospitalizations per year.