Health

Sticking point

Why are educated parents refusing to immunize their kids?

Here’s a true story: A nurse in a small town in B.C. hung out her We Immunize Here shingle. Day after day, hardly anyone came. Then she received a call from a mother who wanted to immunize her child, but didn’t want anyone to know. The mom asked, “Could you open after hours so my neighbours don’t see?”

The story signals a bizarre and dangerous moment in over-parenting: the advent of the anti-immunizers, a movement that believes vaccinations are a medical conspiracy – a pharmaceutical-industry money grab with potentially deadly side effects, including autism.

The Canadian Paediatric Society recommends that children receive a dozen vaccines by the age of 18 months to protect against infectious diseases such as polio, diphtheria and meningitis. But the shots are not mandatory, and a vocal group of parents is opting out on “philosophical grounds.” Suddenly, a mother who protects her child from an iron lung is a candidate for shaming in the town square, evidence – as if we needed any – that parenting is a public act: Each decision you make about your child fuses to the next, forming a pool of evidence whose depths are a measure of your love for your child.

I get the vaccination hesitation: Any parent who has held down an eight-week-old baby’s tiny arms and felt that soft body jerk out an ascending scream knows that “sticking” a child goes against every protective instinct. It looks like harm.

Now, what if, during that first year of endless doctor visits, your child shows early signs of autism? Or what if your child is one of the few who ends up on the wrong side of the risk statistics: the one in one million who develops encephalitis after a measles shot? What parent, hearing that mental boxing-ref’s bell hammering why, why, why? wouldn’t fixate on a reason, any reason? These are the people spreading anti-vaccine panic, and their specific personal pain is now generalized public anxiety.

The problem is that sound medical research says vaccinations are imperative and low-risk. There is no proven link between autism and the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine, or a link between autism and thimerosal, a mercury-based preservative. (Besides, none of the standard children’s vaccines contain thimerosal any more.) What is likely happening is that doctors are getting better at diagnosing autism, and they are doing so early in life, when kids are getting shots. The link isn’t medical; it’s coincidental.

Ours is a culture that trusts the gut, not the facts, and nowhere do half-truths rooted in intuition get more of an airing than on the great bathroom wall known as the Internet. Parents are becoming over-informed, but misinformed, regurgitating dubious blogs and mommy-group chatter while educated caregivers field our uninformed queries: “I heard that…”

A recent study in the American Journal of Public Health showed that mothers with post-secondary degrees are more likely to refuse vaccination than mothers with high-school education; researchers speculate that these parents were caught up in the debate about immunization safety while lower-income mothers were likelier to defer to medical expertise.

Over-researching diaper rashes is one thing, but immunity is not an individual parenting decision; it’s a collective one. “Herd immunity” only occurs if all members of a group receive the same vaccines; if too many opt out, the wall of immunity is breached, and infection can set in – as it did recently in southern Ontario with outbreaks of rubella in a community that refused to vaccinate on religious grounds. By all indications, North America will see a rise in diseases that we spent a half-century eradicating as fewer pharmaceutical companies are producing vaccines, in part for fear of litigious parents. What a sad privilege to be so dissociated from the gruesome reality of illness.

Here’s another true story, this time from a front-line worker at UNICEF, part of a campaign that saw 360 million children in developing countries receive life-saving vaccines from 1999 to 2005: In Liberia, a woman walked to an immunization post with her grandchild on her back to inoculate him against measles, a disease that can cause blindness, deafness and brain damage. She was assuring a future for this child that wealthy nations take for granted. She was not, one hopes, ashamed.