This is a topic I’ve been meaning to write about for, oh, about 5 years now. Since my daughter was born, in fact, and I started caring a little more about these things.
57 months, two more kiddos and a move to the US later, and two things have prompted me to finally get around to putting my thoughts down this week. The first is Disneyland. The second is the startling realisation that on Thursday I’m going to have to register my not-so-baby girl into Kindergarten.
The current measles outbreak here in the US, which reportedly originated from an overseas visitor to the happiest of destination vacation spots, has now resulted in at least 52 Disneyland-related infections in California alone. The disease has spread to 6 other states and Mexico (so far), with more cases in the month of January alone than the US usually sees in an entire year. 15% of these people have been hospitalised. FIFTEEN per cent.
To all who come to this happy place: Welcome. Disneyland is your land. Here age relives fond memories of the past, and here youth may savor the challenge and promise of the future. Disneyland is dedicated to the ideals, the dreams, and the hard facts that have created America, with the hope that it will be a source of joy and inspiration to all the world.—Walter E. Disney, July 17, 1955
Not such a happy place this month though, huh, Walt? What kind of future does a child brain-damaged by encepahlitis have? How much joy is the 2 year old hospitalised by pneumonia experiencing?
Needless to say, because it is Disneyland, suddenly the immunisation debate is all over social media again. The anti-vaxxers are out in force, spreading their tales of mercury-laden poison, reigniting the MMR/autism fire, and singing from the rooftops about their increasingly baffling “the government and big pharma want to poison us all” conspiracy theories. Which is always good for a bit of light reading while you’re nursing a grizzling baby at 3am. A baby who, incidentally, is particularly unsettled this week, having just received four shots of pure government-mandated poison into his chubby little thighs. Quick, somebody call Social Services, I’m a terrible, ignorant mother, a danger to my children and probably to all mankind!
So, what does this all have to do with my little kindergartner, you might wonder?
Well, on Friday, I took Baby James for his Six Month “Well Child” visit with our pediatrician. I asked her about the current measles outbreak, and whether I ought to be worried for my son, who is still too young to be offered the MMR vaccine. Instead of the “Oh no, it’s nothing – relax, Mom!” response I was half expecting, she sighed and adopted her grave face. Thanks to the actions (or should that be non-actions) of the anti-vaxxer brigade, in order to protect my baby from a disease that was all but eradicated until very recently (as recently as the year 2000), I need to be on my guard. If we’re invited to play-dates, it is up to me to call ahead and ask the host “Are all the children there vaccinated against measles? If not, sorry, no bueno, no fun.” She then followed up with “And then you need to ask whether there are any guns kept in the house”. And while that is definitely a topic for another day, it is interesting that she treated measles infection and deadly weapons with equal gravitas.
While contemplating the thought that I actually have no idea whether all or even any of Evie’s little buddies are up to date on their vaccination schedule, I started to wonder what the figures really are in this part of the world, the special little bubble we live in, full of educated and privileged Microsoft, Boeing and Amazon families. The sorts of families who might, for example, vacation at Disneyland without a second thought.
39% of the Kindergarten students at X Y Elementary have met state immunization requirements. The Washington State Department of Health recommends an immunization percentage of 95 or greater.
Or maybe, “OhmyfuckingGodWHAT!!?” might have actually been my initial reaction.
Nearly two thirds of my daughter’s future classmates do not meet state requirements? Right. Good to know. Excuse my ignorance on the topic of education establishments in the United States, but….why the hell are these children permitted to enter the school system? What is the point of government recommendations if people pay about as much attention to them as they do to the “12 Items or Less” sign at the supermarket checkout?
Of course, dear, sweet, naiive anti-vaxxer mom, I understand completely that it is your right to refuse vaccinations for your child. And I’m sure that you are quite convinced that your reasons are valid, your research extensive, and your decision entirely your own damn business.
BUT, equally, it is my right to send my daughter to school without having to fear the diseases she might bring home to her vulnerable youngest sibling. It is my right to take my children to meet Mickey Mouse, without the fear that our vacation may end in an ER visit. It is my right to express utter incredulity that you, being in the extremely privileged position of having the chance to protect your child (and mine) from harm, choose instead to take your chances.
Did you know that Roald Dahl, beloved children’s author of such fabulous tales as Matilda, James and the Giant Peach and The BFG, lost his 7 year old daughter, Olivia, to the measles? From reading to her in bed, as she apparently recovered from the worst of her malady, to “in an hour, she was unconscious. In twelve hours, she was dead”. Just. Like. That.
I’ll let that sink in a little.
Did you know that Andrew Wakefield, the doctor responsible for the deeply flawed research study (with a sample size of just 12 children) which was widely reported to prove a link between the MMR vaccine and autism in children, has not only been totally discredited, but has been stripped of his medical license? Dozens of subsequent research studies have debunked his scare-mongering theory, and the British Medical Journal has gone as far as to call his research “fraudulent”. But tell me, the next time your child develops a 103 degree fever, a nasty rash, an unusually sleepy demeanor – any of those scary things we hate to see in our little ones – do you plan to rush Little Tommy to see your trusted family practitioner, or will it be more “Aha, oh no, that doctor will only try to convince me to give our baby a nasty shot – instead, I’m taking our sweet little flower to that man that was charged with four counts of dishonesty, and twelve counts involving the abuse of developmentally challenged children. HE is definitely the man to trust with the life and health of my irreplaceable offspring”.
Yes. That makes sense.
Did you know that the measles is one of the most contagious preventable diseases out there? Let’s say that your non-vaccinated-through-choice child does develop some of the telltale symptoms of this completely harmless “I had it as a child and I was absolutely fine” illness. The high temperature, the rash, the refusal to eat. You take little Clara, who was breastfed until she was 3, has only ever eaten organic, and most definitely gets her 5-a-day, (actually it’s more like 10) to the pediatrician’s office to find a way to ease her suffering. Except, in the waiting room, she suddenly gets an urge to vomit (another delightful symptom), and rushes to the bathroom to purge. No biggie, you clean up as best you can, and then you leave.
Four days later, in I come with my 6 month old for his scheduled check-up. My little cherub who, you probably remember, is not yet old enough to get that precious vaccine. Except, as we wait, he does what babies are prone to do at inopportune moments like these, and we rush to the bathroom for an emergency diaper change. He doesn’t crawl on the floor. He doesn’t lick the toilet. He doesn’t eat the contents of the trash can. And yet – BOOM – now he has measles.
Four days. No physical contact with your child, or any of the things she touched. Yet…plenty of fun and games ahead for my bouncing baby boy.
Did you know that approximately one in ten children with measles develop ear infections that can lead to hearing loss?
Did you know that as many as one in twenty children with measles will develop pneumonia (the most common cause of death from this disease)?
Did you know that one in a thousand little ones will develop encephalitis, the same brain swelling condition that killed Roald Dahl’s daughter, to whom The BFG was dedicated?
One in a thousand. Huh. It might not sound much to you, but when you remember that measles affects 20 million people around the world each year….well, that’s 20,000 dead Olivias right there.
The reasons I have heard for not vaccinating range from the sublime to the ridiculous, and I’m not inclined to address or promote each crazy conspiracy theory or piece of flawed “evidence” here. As I have said before, maybe that is your right to choose. Well, it’s your child, so of course, it is your right.
But the problem is, it’s not just your child.
We will ALL rely on herd immunity at some point in our lives. Whether it’s as a newborn, as a parent to a NICU baby, as an elderly grandma whose fragile immune system ain’t what it used to be…ultimately, a decent level of herd immunity reduces the likelihood in your city or town that an infected person will even brush up against, let alone endanger, someone who could be vulnerable. Like that 8-year-old whose parents rejected vaccinations, or a baby too young for the MMR jab, or a 5 year old so debilitated by allergies, he is not even eligible for the shots that could save his life. Health professionals say that a vaccination rate of about 95 percent is needed to effectively protect a community. Fall too far below that level and you’re in trouble.
Now, I hope, you might understand my dismay at that 39%.
A healthy diet filled with organic veggies, probiotics and whole grains, extended breastfeeding, a dedication to at least 60 minutes of outdoor exercise and fresh air each day….they are all extremely admirable choices, and I take my hat off to those parents who manage to instill such a healthy regimen in their family life. As long as those lifestyle choices are an add-on, rather than an alternative, to your family’s vaccine schedule.
Otherwise, what happens when this outbreak starts to edge a little closer to home? When those hospitalised children are not in the next state, but in the next classroom? When they start bringing in the men in the HazMat suits? Where will you turn? Will it be to your local farmer’s market, or to the medic with the syringe in her hand?