There were eight words I positively hated when I had the Chickenpox; “Stop scratching, you’ll just make it itch more.” Now that I’m an adult, I can understand that my parents were trying to help me avoid scarring caused by scratching the blisters, but back then—I thought they were trying to torture me. When my daughter was born, scientists had developed a vaccine for Chickenpox, and I jumped at the opportunity to help her avoid the pain, itching, and maddening feeling that I had experienced when I was five years old.
Less than half an hour away from where I live, in the rather famous town of Ashland, Oregon (well famous if you count the Shakespeare festival and a Frontline Documentary), parents have taken a turn off the sanity highway and into the wild unknowns. According to a recent Ashland Daily Tidings article humorously named “Poxsicle Parties”, parents are forgoing immunizing their children and instead trying to inoculate their children by exposing them to other sick kids (Decker). Parents that are my age, around 29 years old, have been told to vaccinate their children from diseases they’ve never seen, and are often uneducated as to what could happen if they don’t vaccinate their young ones. The only way to know what can happen (or not happen) from the decline in vaccinations is to learn the differences and similarities between the two paths of thought.
When I first read the article, I was expecting to see a satire disclaimer at the very end, that the author, Angela Decker, was in fact just referring to a South Park episode from 1998. In the episode the South Park parents attempt to expose their children to Chickenpox when it begins to spread through the town by throwing a sleep over with a sick child. It was quite a shock to see that the article was not satire, but instead something parents in Ashland were actually doing in lieu of immunizing their children. These parents are deliberately exposing their children to the virus in hopes that they will acquire immunity naturally (Decker). While at the parties, children share food, drinks, gum (um…ew?), even popsicles with the child who has Chickenpox. The parties are found via word of mouth, or through websites like Craigslist, and invitation-only Facebook groups. There’s even a local email group called “Mamas Medicine Wheel” that has offered to host parties (Decker).
While these parties are an alternative to the more accepted immunizations, as the children often contract the virus and in turn gain immunity, there is a large risk that travels with them. If the child doesn’t get sick at a party, he or she has still been exposed, and can carry the virus back to not only their school, but to their friends and family. One Ashland mother, who remained anonymous, stated that she has taken her son to four parties of this type over the past two years (Decker). During this time, her child has gone to school, played with other children, and more than likely, visited elderly family members. There is also a chance that her son could have come into contact with people who are immuno-compromised, people who’s immune systems are not working properly due to disease or genetic defects, and passed the virus on to them.
Parents in this day and age have grown up not having to see or experience diseases such as Polio, Smallpox, Typhoid, Malaria, or even Measles. Because they’re not seeing the diseases around them, they’re starting to believe that the vaccines are no longer needed, or are more harmful than helpful (Palfreman). In the PBS documentary “Vaccine Wars”, which focuses on Ashland and various groups set against vaccinating their children, parents have listed reasons against the vaccinations such as the potential for them to cause mental diseases like Autism and ADHD (or as I like to call it, Brat-syndrome), to the belief that if they got sick as kids, their kids can do the same. Jennifer Margulis, who appeared on the show, stated, “As a parent, I would rather see my child get a natural illness and contract that the way that illnesses have been contracted for at least 200,000 years that homo sapiens (sic) have been around. I’m not afraid of my children getting chicken pox. There are reasons that children get sick. Getting sick is not a bad thing.”
Her belief is logical on some parts, except that many of the diseases out there were killing off large populations of people before the vaccines were discovered. Even though places like the United States has a very low disease rate, the same cannot be said for other parts of the world. In fact, many of the latest outbreaks of vaccine preventable diseases have come from abroad. In 2008, there was an outbreak of Measels in a part of San Diego, and the disease traveled there via plane from Switzerland via an unvaccinated chile (Palfreman).
Many parents also believe that it is up to them whether or not to vaccinate their children, and should not be told to do so by the government. Unfortunately, this once again goes back to the chance of spreading preventable diseases. Also, most of the diseases that the parents focus on are diseases that have not been around in almost fifty years. One would not go out and hold a “Polio party” if there was a higher than average chance of catching it (like with Chickenpox). Dr. Anthony Fauci, of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, had this to say on Polio: “When I was a child and the big scare was polio, where you would see your friends playing ball outside with you, baseball and basketball, and all of a sudden get sick and be in bed, be in an iron lung, and then come out with a deformity, a serious limp or a serious physical disability- that is absolutely frozen in your mind as a very scary scenario.”
Because of the decline in diseases in the United States, parents have become complacent. They view the parties and forced exposure of their children as better for their children because of the rare chances for the old diseases to reappear. They have come to the belief that their children are not at risk, so they shouldn’t have to worry about the vaccinations. I think Margulis stated the viewpoint the best when she said, “It’s my responsibility as a parent to keep my child safe, I think, and I don’t think it’s your responsibility to take a vaccine because I might be at the same party with you and you might cough on her. Honestly. I think your job is to protect your own health. And I mean, maybe I sound- I really don’t mean to be sounding selfish in that way.” (Palfreman)
Often viewed as one of the greatest triumphs in medical history, vaccines have helped to remove the threat of diseases ranging from the Flu to Hepatitis. Originally, vaccines used live versions of similar diseases (such as Cowpox to treat Smallpox), many of them are now made from human plasma. It was quite interesting (during my time working at CSL Plasma) to learn that several vaccines, including Tetanus, Rabies, Shingles, and Chickenpox, are made from processing plasma and extracting the antibodies. They are man’s way of getting around the illnesses and damage caused by the illness, while providing the immunity to the disease. According to Dr Melinda Wharton, there are sixteen diseases that are preventable by vaccination for children (Palfreman). Of those, the majority are given to infants, and the rest are given to children as adolescents.
Just like anything else in this world, there are risks associated with the vaccines. Due to social media sites such as Youtube and various blogs, parents are shown videos that lead them to believe the risk is much greater than it actually is. There have also been medical studies (that have since been proven incorrect) such as an article in 1998 by British gastroenterologist Andrew Wakefield, where he reported on twelve children with gastrointestinal problems, eight of whom started showing symptoms of Autism after receiving an MMR shot. Because of that coincidence, he went on to state that the shot istelf was what was causing the children’s Autism (Palfreman).
In fact, many of the parents these days focus on the risks, rather than what the vaccine can do. “To say that there is no risk in any vaccine would not be truthful. What is the risk of injecting something into someone’s arm? The risk is that a certain proportion of people will get swelling and a little bit of pain, lasting from an hour to a day. That is a very acceptable risk.
A very, very, very small percentage of people will get an allergic reaction. Namely, there’s a component to the vaccine that they didn’t realize that they were allergic to.
And then there’s a subset of a very, very, very, very small percentage of those who actually can get a serious reaction. But if you look at that, the risk of that is so minusculely (sic) small as to be completely outweighed by the benefit.” stated Dr Anthony Fauci during his interview with Frontline, when asked about the risks versus benefits of vaccines (Palfreman).
Many of the risks parents are scared of, often can’t even be connected to the vaccine itself. Many studies have been performed that show that there is no link between Autism and the Measels vaccine, yet parents are still convinced, because of videos on the web, or word of mouth, that science is wrong or lying (Palfreman). Lorie Anderson, a former social worker who has lived in Ashland since 1976 and has written in several times to the Ashland Daily Tidings, stated: “After studying the vaccine debate, I came to this conclusion: Not much is 100 percent safe or effective, but the most credible sources reveal vaccine benefits far outweigh their rare serious risks, saving lives and reducing suffering.” (Anderson)
Even though several of the diseases that are vaccinated against don’t exist in the United States, many parents (that vaccinate their children) still focus on the common logic that the USA is not in a bubble, that the diseases still exist outside of the country and can be brought in at any time. It’s what can easily be referred to as the “better safe than sorry” theory, where even though there is a very low chance of coming into contact with the disease, there is still a chance. They also understand that while there is often an up front cost for the vaccine, it saves them money in the long run by avoiding doctors visits, and sometimes even hospital stays for their children.
With the decline in infectious diseases present in the United States, so has the rate for childhood immunizations gone down. One can easily deduce that this is because many parents are beginning to feel that the diseases no longer exist, so why bother trying to prevent it. Unfortunately, this is not the case, and there is great potential for this kind of thought to bring about the next big epidemic in the United States. In Ashland alone, an estimated 28% of school age children lack some or all of their recommended vaccines (Palfreman). Should a disease such as Polio be introduced to the area, much of the population could become infected and either suffer long lasting effects, or die.
While many of the arguments posed by parents who are against vaccinating their children make sense on a small scale, they unfortunately don’t work in the grand scheme of life. While a parent might be able to protect their own child, they are risking putting other children at risk (but hey, the kid’s parents should have taken better care of their own kids, right?) and possibly even people who can’t be immunized at risk. Education is the key to keeping children and adults safe, as well as finding connections between the potential causes behind the rise in diseases that people are trying to link to vaccines. Without education though, and without being willing to weigh the risks versus the benefits, parents are just helping the next big epidemic along, and I don’t want to be one of the ones standing there with my family going, “See, told you so.” as the unvaccinated children wither away from a preventable disease.
Anderson, Lorie. “Vaccination is Protection” Ashland Daily Tidings [Ashland, OR] 14 Feb. 2012
Decker, Angela. “Poxsicle Parties” Ashland Daily Tidings [Ashland, OR] 13 Feb. 2012
Palfreman, Jon. “Frontline: The Vaccine Wars” PBS April 2010