Quite a contretemps has broken out here in my neighborhood. The moms of the area have a listserv I've probably mentioned to you before, and it has once again reared its ugly head. Only, this time I'm the one loaded for bear.
It seems that a good number of moms in this area have made the decision to not vaccinate their children due to fears of autism and autoimmune disorders. Seriously. No polio vaccine, no MMR vaccine, no chickenpox vaccine, nothing. Not one vaccine. And they don't understand why those of us who do vaccinate our kids are less than psyched at having their kids in the public schools with ours. One mom put it best: vaccinations keep populations safe, so the only reason you are able to not vaccinate your child without risking them getting polio is because the rest of us do. It's called "herd immunity" and it only works when the majority of people are getting the vaccines.
One mom who is on chemo wrote in to say that, for her, it's life-threatening to have kids not vaccinated. Another mom wrote in to say that she and she alone will decide what is right for her child, and "well, if you want to know who we are so you can keep your kids away from mine, then here's my email address."
For god's sake. We're not about to sew a scarlet V on your shirt. But can we just have an honest discussion about the consequences? Do your children have grandparents? Aren't you worried about them giving measles to an 85-year old? What if your child really does transmit chickenpox to someone who is immunosuppressed but looks otherwise normal (who might that be?!), what if that person dies? Is that okay with you because your kid is safe, as you define safety?
Clearly, I'm concerned about myself and making sure I don't die from a disease that is preventable, but my biggest question on a more macro scale concerns the whole concept of civil society and community. Isn't part of living in a community and attending community schools and using community resources, the notion of community responsibility? That there are things we'd love to do (or not do) personally but that we do because it's part of being in a civil society? What I'm seeing missing in this debate is that notion: that there are things we do because we are part of a community in order to make the community liveable. Especially when you consider that these are not uneducated or impoverished women who don't know any better or can't find the resources to ensure their kids get a vaccine. These are highly educated and very affluent women choosing to believe what most of us would consider fringe science and in the process endangering every other mother's child (and mother and grandmother!) in the pursuit of keeping their own children "safe."
I'm still processing the shock that people in 2006 in an affluent urban area do not vaccinate their children, and that they are still allowed to attend public schools. It's unconscionable and perplexing, to say the least. All I can think of by way of explanation is that maybe it has been so long since American kids suffered and died (or suffered and lived difficult lives) due to these terrible diseases (that were eradicated how? Oh! By mass vaccination!), that we have forgotten the real dangers here. It's not autism, it's not mercury poisoning. It's watching your child dying from measles complications or spending their lives in a wheelchair from polio...or worse, knowing that your decision to not vaccinate put someone else in that wheelchair.