A Dose of Understanding

(From my “A2W Aging to Wisdom” series, explorations of the joyful ways to go through life.)

To vaccinate or not to vaccinate is frequently the way this controversial topic is framed. I am weary of this “either or” duality, the yin/yang, that attempts to overly simplify a terribly complex subject and in the process helps to generate misinformation and/or incomplete information that can often leave little room for respectful discourse, much less compromise. I do not think the yin/yang perspective is the most effective way to get to a resolution on many important issues, nor do I think it is lessening the chasm within families and between communities. The irony is that the fears and cynicism driving this fight may eventually lead politicians to pass sweeping legislation that by itself may have harmful, unintended consequences for all of us.

As we saw with the measles outbreak first in California and then in other states, the reality is communicable diseases can spread fast, infecting even some who thought they had immunity — a protection that may be acquired from either prior exposure to the disease or from being vaccinated. On another side of the issue is the reality that serious side effects can occur from the very vaccinations that are intended to prevent disease, death, and widespread suffering.

After hearing another contentious debate on the pros and cons of vaccinations I was again reminded of several deeply personal conversations I have had over the years concerning vaccinations. Though I had brief discussions within a small circle, I had not committed these personal stories for publication. One universal law is that sometimes it takes a long time for the Truth to be revealed and that is why I can write about some of this now.

Less than 10 years ago I had a phone conversation with a relative who had taken her healthy young child to the pediatrician for a routine visit. I remember her telling me at that time that her son was given several shots during his doctor appointment, perhaps as many as seven different vaccinations. Within hours she could see her son wasn’t his usual self. Like many parents even only a few short years ago when we knew much less than we do now, it was so much easier to brush it off as a mild side effect that would go away after a day or two. Not to worry.

A reasonable mind does, however, note a correlation between an action and a reaction, and in this story the changes in his behavior became so severe over the next several days that the direct link sure seemed solid. Within days he was no longer the bright, active, verbal child I had once known him to be. After many months, many appointments with several specialists, yes, you guessed it, an autism diagnosis was determined.

Back then this mother could not be 100 percent certain the vaccinations were the culprit. No one was certain then or now as to what caused the abrupt behavior changes. But what is certainly known is something went terribly wrong quickly after that doctor appointment.

It is one thing when you hear a tragic story like this from a total stranger — it’s pretty easy to question the veracity of the source — but it’s a whole ‘nuther experience when it happens like it did to me, to someone related by blood, to someone you know well and trust. Her nightmare story, so similar to others I have read or heard about since then, has left a permanent impression on my heart in part, yes because I know her, but more so because this may have been my outcome had I not taken the approach I did with the progressive minded pediatrician who was caring for my daughter over 30 years ago.

My daughter was born in 1983. When she was due for the DPT vaccination (diphtheria, pertussis “P”, and tetanus), my Colorado pediatrician informed me there were reports of serious problems with the “P” (whooping cough) part of the vaccination. He didn’t elaborate on what those problems were but he did offer me the option for him to delay administering the “P” shot until the concerns with the vaccination were resolved. For that office visit the pediatrician suggested that we just give my daughter the diphtheria and tetanus parts of the vaccination, as this combination was available. I agreed and was grateful not only for his caution, but also for him being current with the latest medical research.

Fast forward to Sept. 2014 when I saw a Los Angeles Times front page article about Dr. Robert Sears, author of “The Vaccine Book: Making the Right Decision for Your Child” (www.latimes.com/local/orangecounty/la-me-adv-vaccines-doctor-bob-20140907-story-html). In the article Dr. Sears mentioned having read a book published in 1985 called “A Shot in the Dark” while he was in medical school. The article said that book argued the whooping cough vaccine was dangerous. It also mentioned the makeup of that vaccine has since been changed. The startling information in the LA Times article was the connecting dot that finally explained what my wise pediatrician knew way back in the early ’80s, that helped me make the right decision not to give my daughter the combined DPT shot.

In a separate conversation I asked the pediatrician questions abou the risks and benefits of giving my daughter the “live” polio vaccine, which was standard protocol in the ’80s and long before then. He listened to me with a compassionate and trained ear. He agreed with my concern there was a small but actual risk of my daughter contracting polio from the “live” vaccination. He further explained there were documented cases of grandparents — who had not been vaccinated against polio — that had contracted the disease just by handling the soiled diaper of their recently vaccinated grandchild. I was told the “live” virus in that particular version of the vaccination can remain active even after it leaves the body through the feces, so anyone, including adults or caregivers who are not protected by gloves or have not been vaccinated, and who become exposed this way, could be at risk for contracting polio.

He offered me the option of giving my daugher the “killed” polio vaccine, an inactive version. He explained it would not carry the same risks as the “live” version. SInce the “killed” version was not available in the U.S. at that time, he said he could get it shipped in from Canada, where it was available. He assured me of both the safety of that “killed” version and its effectiveness and let me know that version of the polio vaccination required three doses to be administered over time. It all made perfect sense to me so he ordered the vaccination from Canada. Soon after my daughter was administered what we believed was the safer vaccination.

Thankfully my daughter did not contract polio, nor suffer any side effects from that vaccination series nor from any of the other vaccinations she was given as a child. But you have to remember, decades ago when she was a baby (and even farther back when I was a child in the ’50s), there were fewer vaccinations. That is unlike today as the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends vaccination against 14 diseases, from birth to 18 years of age and some require several doses.

Now consider yet another complex challenge for parents: pondering one of the newest vaccines on the market designed to help prevent HPV (human papillomavirus). It is not yet a national legal requirement for school attendance but there are increasing pressures for that to happen because the argument from the medical community is strong: The HPV vaccination protects against sexually transmitted viruses that may cause cancer. But even a noble effort such as cancer prevention generates heated debate and concern among many parents who not only worry about short and long-term side effects that are unknown, but who are not yet persuaded by the reasoning behind giving a vaccination to very young kids (11- or 12-year-olds) whose brains and bodies are still developing, and who are not yet sexually active.

It will take much more funding of medical research and time to resolve the mystery of autism and various diseases as well as figure out optimal ways to support our children’s health. Parents will have to become more educated about the current science before their unease about the number of shots and the schedule in which these vaccinations are administered can diminish. I doubt those concerns will every be fully eradicated. Despite compelling facts and scary stats, many responsible parents will remain wary of a particular vaccination or question the protocol schedule. But it’s looking more and more like many parents will do what I did over 30 years ago. They will arm themselves with as much information as possible from as many reliable sources as possible, find a fabulous and wise doctor, and make the decision to allow their children to be vaccinated. But they will likely also opt for a reduction in the number of vaccinations, and request a more spaced-out schedule, instead of submitting their children to many vaccinations all at one time.

I believe anyone who is faced with the vaccination dilemma or who wants to participate in the conversation will benefit from gaining as much information about the risk/benefit ratio. The best decisions can then be made on a case by case basis, as each child and adult presents with their own unique family history of genetics and predispositions. For those who are interested in learning more about the risks and possible side effects of a number of vaccinations — and yes they are rare but ever so real — one valuable resource for that data is from the CDC as they provide a comprehensive list. Go to: http://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/vac-gen/side-effects.htm

By the way, the CDC website indicates the oral polio vaccination, the one I was administered as a child (I was born in 1956), that had the “live” virus, has not been used in the United States since 2000. However slowly that change in the U.S. vaccination protocol came, I still would call that progress. I believe it will continue to evolve as more parents, politicians and medical researchers strive for answers and cures. Hopefully with more attention and effort, vaccination protocol improvements like this will reach across the globe.

What seems to be needed as much is a vaccine that helps reduce demonization of parents and caregivers, particularly toward those we don’t agree with, whether on this or any other issue. I trust most women and men are trying to do the best they can for their children at their most demanding job, being a parent.

Giselle M. Massi copyright May 2015