We Need More Compassion in the Vaccine Debate

by Brandy Ferner

metalhearts1-300x275Parenting today requires the skills of a seasoned investigator. Our parents’ generation has no clue the extent of what I’m talking about. They weren’t inundated with endless articles about why the dinner they just fed their family was on a top ten list of most toxic foods. They parented before the Internet, before we knew that plastics could mess with our hormones, before we knew that smoking while pregnant might be harmful to the baby and before everyone was suddenly allergic to everything. This is a brave new world that requires parents to stick their necks out and ask questions about everything for the sake of their children who are living in a culture where things often slip through the cracks and where the state of the human body is changing faster than our research can catch up. It’s nearly impossible for parents today to ever feel at ease because even when we find safe alternatives to known toxins in our children’s products, we later get slapped in the face with a new study showing that the thing we were told was safe is actually more toxic than the thing it was replacing. BPA anyone?

Us moms and dads ask our litany of questions, even when we feel like we’re being over-concerned, because of our deep parental desire to protect our most loved treasures from a world that is seemingly more flawed and unsafe every single day. We inquire about how things are made and what they’re made from because we are the last defense between our children and the products they come into contact with. We are on the lookout for potential pitfalls so that our little ones aren’t affected by the things we don’t yet know. In the parenting world these days, it’s understood that these questions are just part of the gig. So why is it that when a concerned parent asks about the possible side effects, efficacy or safety of a vaccine, it’s all of the sudden time to not ask the same questions we’ve been asking about everything else that comes into contact with our babies, much less is injected into their bodies? Why do we immediately treat these scrutinizing parents like they need to be rushed off to the insane asylum? Are they not allowed to ask for more information, more nuanced studies and compassionate dialogue? Any parent who has been handed and reads the vaccine’s informational insert that spells out the contraindications, warnings and precautions of the vaccine their child is about to receive, knows that uneasy feeling. For a vast majority of parents, these slim, yet possible risks the CDC and the manufacturers insert acknowledges, do not shake their confidence enough to outweigh what they believe are the benefits of vaccines. And that is why we have such a robustly vaccinated population. But for some, it makes them take pause. No medical intervention is without the risk of harm and vaccines are no exception, however minimal.

With vaccine rates high across the nation, the majority of parents are saying yes to vaccines for their children. But for the parents who are not wholly on board, the “anti-vaxxer” label is misleading at best. After all, the range of parents who are hesitant to vaccinate is much wider and far more diverse than that label may make it seem. In fact, the parents who completely abstain from vaccines represent a small group – less than 1% according to the U.S. National Immunization survey. There are many parents who do vaccinate their kids but are hesitant and only get some vaccines, they delay or spread out vaccines or they get the first in a schedule and opt-out of the second, etc. – highlighting the fact that both being unsure and vaccinating your children can coexist. As a community, we’d all benefit from the understanding that it’s not as all or nothing as it might appear on the surface. A recent study published in the peer-reviewed medical journal Human Vaccines & Immunotherapeutics states that, “…parents with higher levels of education were nearly four times as likely to be concerned about the safety of vaccine[s] than those from lower education levels.” Perhaps some people don’t share these parents’ reluctant feelings about vaccines, but calling them “idiots” misses the mark.

Our children’s pediatricians are our allies. They are the people we turn to when the high fever won’t break. We value their knowledge and their heartfelt concern for our kids. Parents who vaccinate their children put their trust in their pediatricians and their government to make safe recommendations for their kids. Being able to trust your pediatrician is a beautiful thing because it means that someone else has your back and you can maybe take a breather on having to research every. single. thing. yourself. For the vast majority of parents out there, that is enough – and that is understandable. But it is also understandable that for some other parents and their pediatricians, questions remain. Question-asking parents should not be assumed to be blindly refusing or delaying vaccines because of something Jenny McCarthy said or a debunked study. If we cut away all of the fringe science and conspiracy theories out there about vaccines, some parents may still find potentially worrisome facts. Some parents might not feel comfortable that their government tells them that vaccines are safe while the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS) also exists, implying, at the very least, that injury, even if rare, is within the realm of possibilities. Some parents might feel conflicted about the U.S. government’s so-called “vaccine court” – the Vaccine Injury Compensation Program – VICP  that was created so that vaccine manufacturers cannot directly be sued and held liable for vaccine injuries, and has paid out over $2.9 billion in compensation to the vaccine injured. Additionally, some parents might be apprehensive about the amount and timing of CDC-recommended vaccine schedule and the increasing addition of more vaccine doses – from 23 vaccines by the age of six (in 1983), to today’s 49. The aforementioned study from Human Vaccines & Immunotherapeutics states, “Multiple vaccines have been newly introduced and adopted into the recommended childhood vaccine schedule including rotavirus, Tdap, meningococcal and HPV vaccines. With additional new vaccines in the pipeline, the number of recommended vaccines is slated to grow in the future. This has alarmed parents that fear too many vaccines, especially in a short period of time, could be harmful for their children.”

We tell our kids that there is no such thing as a stupid question, encourage them to be curious, to ask why things work the way they do and to keep exploring further. But in the case of vaccines, we don’t lead by example and grant those same ideals to other parents whose questions surpass our own. No one deserves to be silenced or shamed for wanting to know more about anything. “What will happen if our vaccinated population falls below a certain percentage?” is just as legitimate and important of a question as is, “Are vaccines as safe as possible?”

During a segment of this week’s Real Time with Bill Maher, Maher highlighted this exact issue.

“Obviously some minority get hurt by this stuff – I don’t understand why this is controversial,” Maher said. “Why we have this emotional debate about something that there is science there. It astounds me that liberals, that are always suspicious of corporations… and defending minorities, somehow when it comes to this minority that’s hurt, it’s like you know what, shut the fuck up and let me take every vaccine that Merck wants to shove down my throat.”

The fact is that some parents just need to know more about vaccine safety and the complexities of the 24 billion dollar vaccine industry and its chaotic politics, before they consent to vaccinating their children. Parents on both sides of the issue, and in between, acknowledge that the decision to vaccinate is one of personal choice, but also one that affects the community – exactly what makes this issue so very complicated and divisive.

But it doesn’t have to cause so much alienation. All parents want to reach the same destination – safe and healthy kids to share our lives with. No matter where we fall on the emotionally charged vaccine issue, can we better try to see our friends, neighbors, sisters, brothers – and yes, even strangers – as devoted parents simply trying to protect their children? It is possible to be pro-compassion and anti-shaming towards all parents, regardless of if their opinion is the same as ours, even when we’re talking about vaccines.

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Copyright Brandy Ferner © 2015