On vaccination

Here’s what I know. If you’re reading this you’re either going to agree or disagree with me. You already agree or disagree. Reading this will reinforce what you already think, or you will think that I don’t know what I’m talking about. I don’t expect to change any minds. These are exactly the topics that I try to steer clear of online because I’ve never seen a productive conversation following a post like this. So I know I am opening my own can of worms.

But I know I have to say something. I am reading about an outbreak of measles in New York City, and this makes me nervous. I know that this is the first time I’ve thought about measles in my 33 years. I know that vaccination has become less routine, and that this has consequences.

Let me start by saying I sympathize with the desire to opt-out. I know the creeping feeling that our society is over-medicated, the suspicion that we swallow pills instead of solving problems. I know that I try to fix things the natural way. I won’t take aspirin for a headache until it’s lasted for hours. I ask doctors about the necessity of taking antibiotics before filling their prescriptions. I read every possible side effect of everything I ingest. I know what it feels like to give birth with breath as your only sedative.

I know what it feels like to become a mother. The awe. And then the terror. The realization that you are in charge of something – someone – so fragile. The certainty that he will experience pain you won’t be able to protect him from. The joy of trying to do so anyway. The agony of watching him suffer.

I know how much it hurts the first time you stand helpless as a a nurse sticks a needle into your son’s thigh. He looks at you for comfort. You cry. He screams. I know how it feels not to be able to explain. To watch for fevers at night. To rub the lump out of his leg. I know I hate it every time we get him vaccinated.

I know I am doing the right thing.

My son turned six months today. He is a strong, healthy baby, breastfed and big-cheeked. Just tonight, he rolled from his tummy onto his back for the first time. He laughs when you lower your finger to his nose. Tomorrow he will taste sweet potatoes – something new. He will go for his scheduled shots on Monday. He is still six months too young for MMR.

I know 19 out of 8 million is a tiny number. I know that we have to go on living our lives. I know when we were waiting in the doctor’s office last week, my son with his first bad cold, there was a boy with bright red cheeks who coughed in the waiting room. I know I wouldn’t have imagined they were spots if I hadn’t overheard the phone call, another worried mom on the other end of the line. I know the receptionist said that MMR is 99% effective after the first dose. That full immunity is usually conferred by age four. That there is no advantage to getting the second dose early, unless a student in your class is diagnosed. I know that other boy probably had a cold, just like my son. I know that won’t stop me from feeling his forehead for the next two weeks.

I know now why my mom always worried.

I am glad my son’s pediatrician insists all patients follow the schedule. Relieved his daycare requires proof of vaccination. I know the other adults in my son’s life are doing the best they can for him, but I know they can’t protect him either. I know that all vaccines carry a risk. I know that I’m willing to take it.

A friend is coming to visit later this month who is immunocompromised. I know that anyone dealing with serious immune system issues already has enough to worry about without adding preventable illnesses to the list. That the same is true in households with infants. I know that in both cases, they don’t have a choice in the matter: they depend on our health for their own. I know that isn’t convenient. But it must be acknowledged. No man is an island on the Island of Manhattan. We are all in this together.

I don’t know anyone who has had the measles. I do know the reason they haven’t.

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