“Is it possible to put my daughter on a less aggressive vaccine schedule?” I asked our pediatrician while holding my two-week-old infant.
Prior to my daughter’s appointment, I’d gotten a very concerned call from my mother about the many “very credible” YouTube videos she had watched about the dangers of vaccines. I didn’t believe immunizations caused autism and was aware of the recent history driving vaccine hesitancy, but her explanation of the dangers had indeed seemed concerning. “Infants are being given far more vaccines today than what you or I were given,” my mother said. “Couldn’t all of these vaccines overwhelm a baby’s immune system?”
Anti-vaccination movements have existed since the early 1800s. The most recent anti-vaccine movement was born from a small 1998 study published by Dr. Andrew Wakefield claiming a link between the MMR vaccine and autism. Panic quickly spread among parents triggering a significant decline in immunizations leading to measles outbreaks in the early 2000s after the disease had been declared eradicated in the US.
Over the next 12 years, the credibility of both the study and Wakefield himself unraveled. No one could reproduce Wakefield’s findings. A journalist uncovered that Wakefield failed to disclose his work was funded by a law firm that was involved in litigation against a vaccine manufacturer. The ethics violation triggered an investigation into the study by the British General Medical Council (GMC) which uncovered that Wakefield falsified data to support his hypothesis.1,2 Even as Wakefield’s publication was discredited and his medical license revoked, vaccine hesitancy among parents continued to grow.
I knew this, but even so, 10 years of Facebook posts and YouTube videos forwarded to me by concerned family and friends left me uneasy. Even if vaccines didn’t cause autism, cases of vaccine injury were certainly not unheard of. My mother told me about myself as a toddler passing out on her lap and turning blue after an immunization as did a friend who ended up in the ER with her two-year-old son 25 years ago. They had both wondered aloud if vaccines were worth the risk.
Armed with their well-meaning advice, I found myself in a doctor’s office sitting in a child-sized plastic chair negotiating risk. My pediatrician smiled at me and delivered a speech she must have given dozens if not hundreds of times. “Of course, we can put her on a slower vaccine schedule, if that is what you would like to do,” she said before seamlessly working in a story about her family. “Back in Germany in the 1890s, my great-great aunt stayed up all night with sick triplets. She buried two of them in the morning from something we now vaccinate for.”
The imagery of a young, exhausted mother burying two infants at dawn shook me of my doubts. I had the luxury to worry about relatively obscure dangers because infection-based mortality had become so low.
Until the middle of the 20th century, the top cause of death for the population under age 50 was infection with nearly one third of deaths in 1900 occurring in children under the age of 5.3,4 In 1915, 20% of deaths in one to four year olds were from measles and the fifth ranked killer among young children was diphtheria, an awful disease known as “The Strangling Angel of Children.” 3
My own great grandmother was quarantined alone in a barn with her newborn during an epidemic on the Ukrainian coast. Three days later someone heard a baby, my grandfather, crying and pulled him out of the barn from beside his dead mother.
In our arsenal against this awful past is vaccine driven herd immunity. For measles, the threshold is an immunization rate of 93-95%. For Diphtheria the threshold is 85%. Sadly, we have fallen below this threshold. According to the CDC, the MMR and DTP vaccination rates among young children under 36 months is now 91.5% and 83.2% respectively.5
I’ve also since learned that my mother’s fear of vaccine injury was overblown. Overwhelming my healthy daughter’s immune system by giving her four or five vaccines on the same day is unrealistic. According to the CDC, a vaccine has only a tiny fraction of the antigens babies encounter every day in the environment, which number in the thousands.6
When I asked my endocrinologist about the flu vaccine triggering the autoimmune disease GBS, he all but laughed at me saying he has only seen a single case of GBS in his entire 40-year career.
I chose not to take a chance on these old killers. My now four-year-old daughter is up-to-date on her immunizations.
1 Andrew Wakefield Wikipedia Page. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andrew_Wakefield
3 UK Office for National Statistics. https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/birthsdeathsandmarriages/deaths/articles/causesofdeathover100years/2017-09-18#:~:text=Top%20causes%20of%20death%20by%20age%20and%20sex%2C%201915%20to%202015&text=Between%201915%20and%201945%2C%20infections,middle%2Daged%20males%20and%20females.
4 When Children Die: Improving Palliative and End-of-Life Care for Children and their Families. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK220806/#:~:text=Infant%20mortality%20dropped%20from%20approximately,1999b%3B%20NCHS%2C%202001a).