The Blog

I Know Your Fear Anti-Vaxxers, But This Isn't Your Choice

The crux of my problem with the current debate is that this just isn't one of those decisions we make for our families alone. This isn't one of the times where you get to weigh it up and make the call. This isn't about your individual freedom, its about basic community responsibility.

I feel there is something crucial being left unsaid as the ever-present vaccination debate bubbles back to the surface: the risk to our kids, perceived or real, essentially doesn't matter. Even saying that makes me nervous. It goes completely against the way many of us currently live our lives and can be pretty hard to accept.

But accept it we must, and when you have, please vaccinate your children.

Measles is always a hot topic thanks to that discredited Andrew Wakefield report that mistakenly linked the MMR jab with autism in 1998. Poor uptake of vaccinations following that were largely blamed for the 2013 epidemic, based in Wales, where more than a thousand people took ill and one person died. UK vaccination rates for young children are now recovering, but elsewhere the anti-vax movement is still going strong. Officials in California are even warning against "measles parties" as the state's infection tally passes a hundred since an outbreak at Disneyland, and under-vaccinated or unvaccinated adults in Berlin are being linked to the 250+ cases that have been confirmed in an ongoing epidemic there.

But as facts about the outbreaks fill up column inches, my social media pages are dominated by link-trading battles from two very entrenched camps. On the surface it's a fight over science: links to dubious research, people with sad and worrying but still case-study-of-one personal experiences, a claim that anyone who accepts the global scientific consensus is somehow being "duped" by the power and money of big pharmaceuticals. Then of course all the well-documented rebuttals.

The thing that's missing from the dialogue, as I see it, is that all these claims and fears, true or not, are basically irrelevant.

I may be pro-vaccination but I understand the fear. I confess: I'm a paranoid mother. I get palpitations every 10 seconds in the playground as my dare-devil daughter leaps and bounds from one high place to the next, I think I would vomit if she so much as rode around a car park in a car seat she was one inch too short for, and I'm currently obsessively temperature-taking and monitoring all her imaginary aches and pains for the possibility of hantavirus after a mouse infestation in her bedroom and too much time on Google.

It's because putting our kids first is our main responsibility: no wonder it's a hard habit to shake. Every slight danger they face it is generally up to us to weigh up the risks and make the call. But while I would love to insulate my daughter against all risk, I actually don't - most of us don't. Each time they hit the monkey bars we're making mental calculations of fun, independence and developing strength vs broken limbs, necks and worse. The single biggest cause of childhood death is still car accidents: each year thousands of under-19s die on the road, and yet we keep on putting them in cars. Every time we do it we're making a judgement; this time it's convenience versus risk, but we still take it. We weigh it up and decide its worth it - then live with the paranoia and fear.

But I'm not calling for a sense of proportion as anti-vaccine campaigners serenely drive their children around. We now live in a strikingly individualistic society. We choose which fears to act on, and which risks to take, with purely ourselves and our nuclear families in mind. There are places in the world, and times in history, where that would seem almost unbelievably privileged. It is. We are certainly not being told we must send our children off, en masse, to die for their countries.

But we still do live in a society, and we do sometimes manage to think and care outside the carefully guarded walls of our own families. We may be prepared to ignore the stats and put our kids in cars, but we accept that it is NOT our personal choice to drive however we please, putting other people's children at risk. There are laws against that: you drive recklessly, you kill or harm another person, you could go to jail. But what about recklessly ignoring advice and not vaccinating your child? Is that not like dangerous driving? Putting my child, my elderly relative, my immuno-suppressed chemo-patient friend, my pregnant neighbour, babies too young to vaccinate, the unfortunate few for whom the vaccines aren't effective, at risk? Simply by not vaccinating your child against a fast-spreading, dangerous disease like measles?

Because the crux of my problem with the current debate is that this just isn't one of those decisions we make for our families alone. This isn't one of the times where you get to weigh it up and make the call. So even if all the information put forward to warn against the MMR has some basis, even if there were a real risk of autism or poisoning or a higher likelihood of severe allergic reaction to the jab, even if the government stats aren't 100% accurate after all, it essentially doesn't matter. This isn't about your individual freedom, its about basic community responsibility.

That may sound brutal and rankle with all our current individualistic ways of thinking, but, even if there IS a risk to your child if you vaccinate, you simply have to take it.

That's admittedly a hard pill to swallow. If it helps, then as you sit panicking in the doctor's surgery as the life-saving shots are administered, and watching your kids like hawks for symptoms of whatever that post on Facebook says you're exposing them to, then take heart - you may be saving someone else's life. That is one risk you can feel very good about taking. And it's certainly a lot more worthwhile than strapping them back in the car just to drive out and pick up the groceries.

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