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Vaccine Exemptions Spark Debate

By Christine Vara

In reviewing the comments on my last post regarding personal belief exemptions, it is obvious that I struck a chord with many of you.  While I was surprised by the response to this particular piece, I was also excited that so many of you chose to contribute to the discussion.  In light of some of the comments, I feel the need to clarify a few things for the visitors to this blog. 

First, I want to identify myself as a wife and a mother.  I am not a licensed medical professional, nor have I been schooled in public health.   I am simply a parent who is attempting to navigate the confusing, never-ending, and often emotional, maze of vaccine information.  Second, my contributions to this blog represent my own personal perspective, created from the challenges of attempting to raise five active, healthy children in a very uncertain and changing world.  It has been my goal to learn more about vaccine related issues, and I have chosen to share my journey with you through this blog

I recognize that many of you who read my posts are personally, and maybe even professionally, involved in some kind of vaccine advocacy (perhaps in favor of vaccines, perhaps not).  However, the audience I seek to engage also includes parents, like me, who are trying to make sense of the volumes of information regarding vaccines and vaccine preventable diseases.   I have no desire to ignite adversarial commentary, but I do hope to develop a forum that will raise awareness and engage people in thought-provoking conversation.

To be honest, there are days when the rhetoric in response to some vaccine related news disgusts and infuriates me to the point where I have no desire to participate.  However, these instances are juxtaposed with moments of clarity, concern and the desire to help other parents to discover credible information that they can use to make educated decisions for themselves and their families.   

Last week, in the midst of trying to prepare my own children for the upcoming school year, I came across an article entitled “Vaccine Refusals Are On the Rise” in the San Diego Union-Tribune with information that both surprised and concerned me.  It included research statistics from the Watchdog Institute that detailed information about the use of vaccine exemptions in California schools and it became the catalyst for my last post.  The news on this issue continues with a recent article in Newsweek, entitled “California Cracks Down on Unvaccinated Kids”

Let me first explain that I completely understand that there are instances, such as in the case of compromised immune systems or allergic reactions to vaccine ingredients, which prevent people (both children and adults) from receiving immunizations, even if they would want them.   Fortunately, for those who can’t be vaccinated, the concept of herd immunity helps to provide them with some protection and each state offers medical exemptions to address these cases.   However, with the more recent addition of personal belief exemptions, there has been an increase in the number of parents using this type of exemption to allow their children to be admitted into school without one, or some, of the state mandated immunizations.  What the San Diego Union-Tribune article was referring to, and what I was commenting on through my post, was the possibility that a growing number of personal belief exemptions could eventually present an increased risk in the spread of vaccine preventable diseases in school.

As seen in the various comments, opinions on the subject were varied. Whatever your position may be on the use of vaccinations for your child, and the use of personal exemptions in some 20 states, perhaps we can all acknowledge the need for better communication in regards to vaccine use and safety. 

Not surprisingly, a recent Rasmussen report indicates that 52% of American adults are concerned about safety of vaccinations for children.  Personally, I suspect that this means that concerns are not properly being addressed or effectively communicated on either side of the issue, and so many people remained unconvinced regarding their safety concerns.  Maybe parents do not have confidence in the information they are receiving due to a growing skepticism in today’s society.  Maybe it has become more difficult for parents to develop strong, trusting relationships with their primary care physicians, due to lack of time, accessibility or other health care trends and so they no longer value the advice of their doctor.  Or perhaps it’s because parents become confused and frustrated when they try to search for information on the internet.  Overwhelmed by conflicting information and stories of scary outcomes, both in favor of, or in opposition to, vaccination, they may simply resolve themselves to remain “concerned”. When it comes right down to it, each individual may have a complex set of reasons why they are concerned and we may never fully understand those reasons.    

Interestingly enough, the Rasmussen report goes on to note that while adults are concerned about the safety of the vaccines themselves, they are more worried about the consequences of not vaccinating children.  A majority (76%) say they are concerned that unvaccinated children will cause health problems for other children.  This is eye-opening for me.  While it’s typical for parents to want  what is best for their children, it is actually reassuring to me (in this often cynical, look-out-for-number-one world) that there are a significant number of people who are willing to accept a certain level of risk for the good of public health.  Now, I don’t expect everyone to embrace this concept.  (In fact, I may have just touched upon another emotional debate.)  However, each day that my husband puts his country before himself and his family in service of this nation, I appreciate that there are people who are willing to honor the “good of the many”.  

Certainly, I believe that everyone is entitled to their opinions, which will ultimately influence their choices.  As I continue my journey, I hope to learn more from each of you as we engage in further conversation regarding these complex issues.  Perhaps you may even consider contributing a guest post to Shot of Prevention to further facilitate a forum that we all can participate in.  In the meantime, I will continue to share my thoughts here in hopes that my one small voice can somehow, and in some way, impact the health and well-being of a child, a family and perhaps even, eventually, an entire community.

  1. September 3, 2010 at 8:03 pm

    Dear Christine:
    First of all thank you for sharing your beautiful family with all of us. My prayers and thanks go with your husband for his military service.
    When one is passionate about an issue it becomes important and we began to dedicate our lives and time to it. Thank God, though you have not been personally affected, like myself who has lost a child or many of us on both sides who have had a child affected, you still have passion and show a care and love for all children. With five of your own, I can see from whence your passion has sparked.
    The blog post to which you refer did spark a lot of discussion. Almost like the planting of a garden there were flowers and weeds. I was excited to see some flowers emerged on both sides of the fence. I am thankful for the blog post because it has opened up a way for all of us to cross the path and possibly educate and inform each other with truth, facts and even life experience. I find that the last of these sometimes is the most valuable and like sunshine to a garden, it brings life and light to an issue.
    Since Ryan’s death the passion and love I gave as a mom has expanded to my advocacy and love for all children, to make sure all children are protected from deadly vaccine preventable diseases. I respect there are those children who can not and should not take vaccines. While saying this, I believe this is why it is important that we continue the research and development of safe and healthy vaccines to prevent deadly diseases.
    I believe that we make every effort to create an environment free of deadly disease. While it is true that all children who get influenza, meningitis, chicken pox, measles, mumps or pertussis just to name a few, will not die or be debilitated, some will. Some women will develop deadly cervical cancer from HPV. One is too many. My Ryan was too many.

    We saw in a recent outbreak of meningococcal meningitis in Oklahoma where in a little over a week 8 children contracted this deadly disease. They were mostly 6-7 year olds with an infant, toddler and one teen involved. The first thing that struck horror in me was the realization of an outbreak in this age group. An age group we are not protecting. Two of the six year olds died, one was left with no face, arms or legs. The infant in the mist lost both legs, arms and nose. The teen had to have emergency surgery as a result. 3 of the 8 suffered great, horrific, deadly and debilitating results and 2 precious lives were taken needlessly. There is proof that this was all caused from this vaccine preventable form of meningitis. It started in a school room of first graders. 3 of the 8 were in the same little class room. Vaccine could have prevented all of this.

    Everyday of my life I speak or write about my son dying. It is sometimes more painful than I can even bear.
    I will never be called mom again, I will never be the parent at a wedding, I will never hold a grand child or have Ryan’s comfort when my husband or I have to leave the other. However, in my heart, I know this work I do in Ryan’s memory is worth wild and important. If one child is protected from death of debilitation by this horrible disease or any vaccine preventable disease, then Ryan’s death was not in vain. My life still has purpose.

    I encourage all no matter what they believe to stand up, be heard and advocate for the right thing. However I beg all who do so to make sure they have done their own research with educated medical professionals, factual research data from reliable resources or because they have actually had a personal experience.

    I stand firm that vaccines are still the best disease prevention of our lifetime.

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  2. September 7, 2010 at 10:59 am

    Dear Christine,

    Thank you very much for posting Frankie Milley’s response to your vaccine discussion. It is so true that there are many silver linings when adversity strikes. One of my life’s silver linings is having the pleasure of calling Frankie a friend. We met as we have both seen vaccine-preventable diseases up close and personal.

    While Frankie lost her son as a result of meningitis, I am a survivor of a 1953 polio epidemic. Three children died in our suburb, including my twin brother, Frankie… Though polio is not eradicated, there is hope that it will soon be a disease of the past. Unfortunately, because parents no longer see polio in our country, they can develop the false assumption that their children no longer need the polio vaccine.

    Because of the recent outbreak of polio in Tajikistan (part of the European Region), the warnings of public health officials around the world are sounded once again: “Polio is a disease that could be just a plane trip away. ”

    Like Frankie, I believe that vaccines are the best means of preventing death and disability from childhood diseases… Frankie’s foundation, Meningitis Angels, is doing phenomenal things to educate the public and to help those already affected by meningitis. Frankie Milley is a true angel on Earth!
    – Jan Nichols

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  3. Jess
    September 8, 2010 at 2:43 pm

    Frankie, I just wanted to say thank you for putting up the good fight in support of vaccinations. These days, with the media and many famous faces (whom have no medical training wahtsoever) are spreading fear about vaccinations, it’s a beautiful thing to read a story from a mother who KNOWS what the lack of a vaccination can cause and is not afraid to share her story. You brought tears to my eyes because I can’t even imagine your loss, and I have two small boys of my own. I was sad, then angry because your pain and loss could have been prevented and that is just unforgivable in this day and age. I hope that those who are jumping on the vaccination ‘fear wagon’ read your story and think twice about not vaccinating their children.
    In the end, it really is about the greater good of the whole, rather than the inconvenience of one. I truly believe that, and that is why I vaccinate my children.

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