Many of my childhood Christmas memories blend together. Generally, I have happy memories of Christmas with family as a child. There were some funny moments, like when the artificial Christmas tree was taken from a storage closet and the box opened. In an instant, a mouse came running out the box causing my mother to jump higher than I could have imagined. I was probably four at the time and wanted to see it happen again!
But then there was 1964. That was a miserable Christmas. I was the sickest I can remember at any time in my childhood. I had a high fever. My mother wiped my body with compresses soaked with cooling alcohol. While the family doctor wanted to me to stay at home so that I wouldn’t spread the infection, I remember hearing my father say that if the fever didn’t break soon, then he would take me to the hospital. That was the year I had measles.
It was in 1962 when the measles vaccine was discovered. It was approved for use in 1963. In 1964, most children weren’t yet vaccinated. For my generation, measles was a common childhood disease.
Yes, I survived. I have no lasting side effects from the illness. But even in the rural area where I grew up, I knew that some kids were hospitalized. The most common side effect of measles is encephalitis, the swelling of the brain. When the brain swells, brain damage can occur. There’s also the risk of death from measles.
I understand that some parents wonder what the side effects of vaccines could be. I don’t think that these parents are somehow “bad” or “stupid” as some commentary suggests. I suspect that most of them are worried and concerned about the well-being of their children and fear potential side effects of a series of vaccinations. After all, it’s a commonly held perception that the primary goal of pharmaceutical companies is to make money, so they’ll sell us whatever they can to meet their projected profit goals. Sometimes, side effects of medications seem to pose a greater risk than the disease. But there’s no evidence to show that this is true in the case of the measles vaccine. (Yes, one study presented a link between vaccines and autism but the authors of the study admitted fraud and retracted the study.) In this context, I suspect that it would be more helpful to acknowledge the fear these parents experience and help them overcome that fear. Name calling and quoting statistics only entrenches people in their beliefs, even when there is no basis for those beliefs.
Of more concern to me are advocates who claim that children have a right to experience childhood diseases. Somehow, these advocates consider childhood diseases as rites of passage that are somehow needed for maturation. By this rationale, does a child have the right to pull a pot of boiling water from the stove because such accidents in childhood are common? No. Adults have the responsibility to care for and protect children. Intentionally subjecting children to harmful situations is abusive to the child.
Some parents believe that by holistic practices and good diet, their children will be more able to fight off infection. I had a good friend named Gary who contracted HIV some years ago. He became convinced that good nutrition and a set of holistic practices would keep him alive so he refused conventional treatment. However, he died. The difference is that he was an adult who made an informed decision. In the case of childhood vaccines, some parents with a particular ideology are making those decisions for their children and putting them at risk.
For me, the most compelling issue in this debate is that of ethics. While those who espouse an anti-vaccine position frame their argument in terms of personal rights and liberties, they fail to recognize the ethical imperative of protecting the common good. When a child has measles, 90% of those with whom the child comes in contact who are not immune will be infected. That’s far greater than the rate of infection related to Ebola or HIV. It was reasonable to develop protocols for quarantine for health workers returning to the US from countries with Ebola outbreaks. Most states have laws that prosecute those who knowingly spread HIV infection. What makes measles any different? Measles can be debilitating and deadly and the virus is very contagious.
Protecting public health and the common good are ethical norms that support mandatory vaccination of children. This is not an issue of personal freedom any more than wearing seat belts or the requiring insurance for automobiles. The risks to the public of not vaccinating children for measles and other diseases far outweigh the risk to the individual. Measles can lead to permanent harm or death and is highly transmissible. Personal beliefs and fears are outweighed by the ethical imperative to protect the lives of most children.
I had measles. While many of my childhood friends had chicken-pox, I was lucky enough to be missed by that disease. Having grown up with traditional childhood diseases, I know that the experience is horrible both for the child and the family. In the years I served as a pediatric chaplain, I met very few parents who had a casual attitude toward their children’s illnesses. Most would have traded places with their kids if given the chance.
I’d like to think that the parents who refuse vaccination for their children are well meaning, fearful, and misinformed. However, the more I read on this topic, the more I am coming to believe that far too many parents are basing decisions about their children’s health on information provided by ideologists and conspiracy theorists. The results of such false information imperil today’s children in ways far greater than those of the children who grew up without the availability of vaccines. Today, rather than provide preventive care because of fear and misinformation, parents are putting their children at great risk for no apparent benefit. It’s one of the avoidable tragedies that characterize life in the United States today.
© 2015, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.