It was probably twelve years ago when I first heard someone mention the very possibility that vaccinating a child was optional. For me, going to the doctor and waiting for shots was just part of the growing up. My first thought was like most people’s–something along the lines of “that’s friggin’ crazy.” So one night when I was out with a friend getting her PhD from a prestigious university in Microbioloy and Immunology I told her about this theory. And her response? She didn’t blow it off. In fact, she explained to me that it’s well-known that vaccines can be damaging to the recipient.

Well, that changed my mind just a tad.

Fast-forward many years to the birth of my first child and I started off vaccinating exactly as I was directed. My son ended up having a number of medical problems, including a severe case of epilepsy, and immunizations were put on hold indefinitely. When he was recovered from his violent and debilitating seizures, a neurologist recommended that he receive as few vaccination as possible–just in case.

And again, I wondered.

I can promise you that I have never taken the advice of Jenny McCarthy on this issue. I don’t think vaccines cause autism. I have consulted several pediatricians that I know personally and some other people I know who work in the areas of public health.

Jonal Salk--inventor of the polio vaccine--holding two bottles of vaccine solution.

Jonal Salk–inventor of the polio vaccine–holding two bottles of vaccine solution.

I do think that vaccines can harm people–I’ve known people who have suffered permanent brain damage from common vaccines. These are both adults and children who now receive a government stipend because of their vaccine injury. I’ve known parents whose children have become epileptics after routine vaccinations. I know parents that believe their children have suffered damaging effects after being vaccinated. I can’t discount all these people.

I also don’t want to expose my children to potentially deadly diseases if I don’t have to. At the top of my list for vaccination are anything involving meningitis, and the Pertussis/Diptheria/Tetanus combo. Polio is another biggie for me.

I’m not scared of all the possible diseases out there. I even believe that it’s good for a body to get to utilize its immune system fully.

The_cow_pock

But the science! People seem to be shrieking these days. Vaccines are perfectly safe!

And they’re kind of right, but not totally right. Vaccines are mostly safe–the National Vaccine Injury Compensation program exists for those times when it isn’t. And while most vaccine reactions are localized, I’ve heard stories of doctors refusing to file incident reports and I’ve known people who have suffered permanent disabilities from common vaccines. Vaccines are still a crap shoot. Every time you get one, you take a risk, and these days we’re taking those risks many more times than in the past. Yelling about science doesn’t change those facts.

Vaccines are also tested alone when their safety is determined. We assume they are also safe when given at the same time as other vaccines, but that’s not tested. The other major concern of mine is that vaccines are only tested on people with no other conditions. When you do a scientific study, they only use healthy people. People with preexisting conditions are excluded from studies. So a child with a brain injury or an autoimmune disease–well, we assume the vaccines are safe for them. We don’t actually know.

I know that there are public health concerns with my stance on this issue and I have thought about these as well. One concern is that unvaccinated children are causing outbreaks of diseases that were previously very rare. I understand the argument, but I’m not fully convinced that it is only unvaccinated children causing these problems. Several years ago I contracted a nasty case of whooping cough. I’ve received all of my vaccinations and had no idea I had whooping cough until two weeks into the ordeal. I just can’t put the blame of these outbreaks solely on the shoulders of those unvaccinated children. I think adults who have outgrown their vaccinations are also part of the problem. There’s also the 15% of persons for whom the vaccine doesn’t actually work. That’s a pretty big chunk.

And the final, and for me, the hardest part of all of this is the idea of those who have immune dysfunction that prevents them from being vaccinated. They are protected when everyone else is vaccinated. My only response is that I am called to do right by my child. I don’t want anyone else’s child to get sick, but my first responsibility is to my own. If I believe that a vaccine could harm them, I can’t give it to them just for the sake of everyone else. That’s not what a mother does. I try my best to vaccinate for as many things as I am comfortable with and I do it very slowly–one shot per visit which means a lot of extra visits. I don’t love this part of my stance, but again, my first responsibility is to my own children. I keep them home when they’re sick and generally we stay home during the height of cold and flu season. I make these decisions because I worry about my children and about their health like all parents do. I am careful and observant, and I make the best decisions I can with the information I have. I know this isn’t what everyone wants to hear, but that’s the way it is.

I realize my choice isn’t the same as everyone else’s. I realize that I might make some people angry. I am sorry. These are tough choices and like every parent, I do my best. Our best isn’t always perfect, but it’s all we can do.