As a mom, I get pretty defensive when people try and judge my choices. Everyone seems to have opinions about how women should or shouldn't raise their kids, and that's a lot pressure — especially since many of us already carry a huge burden of guilt and worry about our children as it is. Parenting is hard, and honestly, I fully believe in the "you do you" approach to motherhood in pretty much all cases. But one instance where I definitely do not think a mother's choice should overrule all others? Vaccinations. It's a popular stance, but the fact remains that parental autonomy is a bad argument against vaccinations. And that's because giving parents final say over vaccines (even smart, loving, well-intentioned parents) can have a devastating effect on communities. While I totally encourage all parents to honestly do what they feel is best for their kids, vaccination just isn't a choice that they should get to make.
Right now, major outbreaks of measles are occurring throughout Europe, according to BBC News. The largest outbreaks have been seen so far in Italy and Romania, with Romania reporting more than 3,400 cases and 17 deaths over the past year. That might not seem particularly alarming to American parents, but it should: outbreaks can easily occur here given the nature of international travel, and, in fact, they have. According to the Centers for Disease Control, during the period of Jan. 1 to March 25 of this year, 28 people in 10 states were reported to have the measles. Add in the fact that measles is six times more contagious than the flu, and that in 1 in 5 cases, those who get the measles will also experience complications like ear infections, pneumonia, deafness or even death, according to The Independent, that should probably be making a lot of people very uneasy.
The biggest, and most frustrating, part though, is that measles is actually entirely preventable. According to the Mayo Clinic, since the introduction of the measles vaccine, "measles has virtually been eliminated in the United States," thanks to what's called herd immunity. That should be great news, but the problem is, herd immunity has been weakening. Why? Mostly due to a rise in panic over a long-debunked study published by British doctor Andrew Wakefield, who claimed, erroneously, that the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine was linked to autism, according to The Independent. Naturally, parents became afraid of vaccinating their children — who would knowingly allow their kids to be vaccinated if they believed they were going to get autism? — and immunization rates went down. But even though Wakefield's study has been thoroughly discredited, and even though plenty of other studies have found the MMR vaccine to be safe, fears have remained — and have arguably increased, thanks to the internet's active anti-vaxx community.
To many still-nervous parents, who fear that they may have been lied to by the government, or that the studies proving vaccine safety have been flawed or corrupted, the anti-vaxx community provides them with a place to feel as though they are doing the right thing by protecting their children. And when you honestly believe that vaccines are poison, then of course you will also honestly believe that you should be the one to decide if your child is vaccinated.
The flip side of that, though, is the personal choice to not vaccinate your child doesn't just affect your child. According to The Independent, at least 95 per cent of the population needs to be vaccinated in order to provide herd immunity — that is, to ensure that those who cannot be vaccinated are protected. Who needs herd immunity? According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, infants require the protection of herd immunity until they are old enough to be vaccinated themselves. Pregnant women also need herd immunity, as do immunocompromised individuals, such as cancer patients, or those battling HIV or AIDS, or similar diseases. In other words, when you get vaccinated, you aren't just protecting yourself. You are contributing to the herd immunity that protects vulnerable people.
The irony is that parental autonomy over vaccinations would be an entirely valid argument if the misinformation surrounding vaccinations wasn't bringing immunization rates so low that herd immunity could not occur. If, let's say, you choose to bypass a vaccine for your child because of an allergy to one of the vaccine ingredients, then of course, you should make that call. If your child has a serious medical issue, like cancer, a blood disorder, or any kind of immune disorder, then, as your child's mother, you would need to say no. But in those cases, that child would also certainly deserve to benefit from the protection of herd immunity, since they will not have immunity themselves. But because parental choice regarding vaccination has now become more about debunked scientific studies and an awful lot of scary-sounding YouTube testimonials, the desire for parental involvement has put countless vulnerable people at risk — including other people's children.
This isn't just an American issue, either. Around the world, immunization is dropping. In Italy, 85.3 per cent of 2-year-olds were given measles vaccinations in 2015, according to The Guardian. That might sound like a pretty good percentage, but it's not enough for herd immunity. In Romania, home of a current measles outbreak, less than 80 percent of the population is vaccinated, and, perhaps unsurprisingly, the "vaccines cause autism" myth remains strong in both countries.
The other important fact parents need to consider? That even if they think they are protecting their kids by not vaccinating them, the truth is, they could just as easily be putting them at risk. According to BBC News, "unvaccinated young children are at highest risk of measles and its complications, including death." And if your child actually gets the measles, there is no specific treatment for it.
It is understandable, of course, to want to be able to make what you feel are the best possible choices for your kids. But parents who learned the hard way that perhaps immunization is an issue better left to medical professionals are beginning to share their stories as cautionary tales.
In 2015, Canadian mom Tara Hills wrote about her experience after all seven of her children contracted whooping cough, and came close to contracting the measles. In an essay for TheScientificParent.org, Hills explained that she shared many of the same concerns about vaccines as other anti-vaxx parents, and ultimately opted out of vaccines completely for their youngest children. Hills wrote,
We had vaccinated our first three children on an alternative schedule and our youngest four weren’t vaccinated at all. We stopped because we were scared and didn’t know who to trust. Was the medical community just paid off puppets of a Big Pharma-Government-Media conspiracy? Were these vaccines even necessary in this day and age? Were we unwittingly doing greater harm than help to our beloved children? So much smoke must mean a fire so we defaulted to the ‘do nothing and hope nothing bad happens’ position.
But when a local measles outbreak hit in her "personal circles," Hills said she began to see the very real risk she was taking with other people's lives:
Our family was one step from contracting measles in our mostly under-or-unvaccinated 7 kids. Maybe we could have weathered that storm unscathed in personal quarantine. But in the 4 highly contagious days before any symptoms show we easily could have passed on our infection to my sister’s toddlers or her 34-week-old son in the NICU.
Hills now looks at her concern about vaccinations and the desire for parental choice as being part of "the consequences of misinformation and fear," and she wrote that she understood that in trying to protect her children, she was putting others' lives at risk.
It honestly makes a lot of sense from a parental perspective that something like vaccination would be a scary issue, and because you love your child so much, you want to do what you feel is best. But when new parents with sincere intentions about "researching" vaccine safety end up coming face to face with endless anti-vaxx propaganda that makes a very convincing argument against vaccinating, and then makes an equally-as-convincing argument that parents, not governments, should be the ones who decide, it's incredibly easy to see how immunization rates have begun to fall to the point where these once basically eradicated diseases are popping up again.
The point though, is that of course parents should be able have autonomy over their children — so long as those choices affect only their children. When it comes to vaccination though, one parent's choice has implications for countless others, and in certain cases, can literally lead to the death of other people's kids. It's understandable that you might be scared or uneasy, and it's understandable that you want to protect your child. But years of research and studies have shown that vaccinating is actually the way to do that. And the best way to find out for yourself if that's true is to back away from Google, and have a discussion about it with a knowledgeable doctor you trust.