Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Vaccination Resignation

Ugh, the dreaded day arrived, all too soon: Vaccination Day, or V-Day. Few topics elicit more dread, or provide more heated argument among new parents, than the fear of something going horribly wrong with your perfect little child; for all too many parents the only obvious villain is the vaccine.

It’s so hard to figure, from our post-modern perch, that just two generations ago vaccines were seen as miracle cures. Within my own parents’ lifetimes they had a president who had polio. It’s absolutely beyond conceivable to think of anything like that happening today, and not just because the constant media glare of our omni-present news cycle would make FDR look like the handicapped man he so clearly was.

No, it’s because polio was wiped out from our Western world, thanks to vaccines. In fact the fight against polio was so successful that the March of Dimes, created to fight polio, has basically had to change its mission in order to stay in business. Remember how, even as recently as the early 1980s, you would go into local restaurants and see the little cardboard March of Dimes dime holder? When’s the last time you saw one of those, huh? Probably a damn long time ago if you’re at all like me, because polio is no longer a threat.

Measles, are also almost entirely eradicated, thanks to vaccines. I remember when I was a child hearing about the scourge of measles from the black and white old-timey movies and TV shows I would watch on Sundays, like in Our Gang. It sounded fun, almost, getting measles. You’d get them, stay out of school for a few weeks, and that was about it. Of course in reality measles probably killed millions, with German measles probably doing even more damage.

I, of course, have no proof that German measles are any worse than the good old American kind, but as a Jew I'm always willing to give anything Teutonic the anti-benefit of the doubt.

Anyway, the bottom line is this: I’ve never met anyone in my life that’s ever, ever had measles. That’s because of vaccines.

I myself received what was ever the full course of childhood vaccines, some 36 years ago. My parents almost certainly lost no sleep about it.

But then there’s the other side. The dreaded A word: autism.

Several years ago I read a highly influential article by Robert F. Kennedy Jr. in Rolling Stone, where he detailed, with some authority, the then little-discussed—outside of parenting circles that is—autism epidemic. The culprit, of course, where greedy pharmaceutical firms that, for some god-forsaken reason, chose to preserve their vaccines with mercury. Mercury! Only one of the most toxic substances known to man.

I remember how, in seventh grade, my science teacher, Mr. Marin, once rolled some mercury on a table before the class. He was so keenly aware of its deadliness, its toxicity, that he made us stand back a good five feet, as if it could attack us from a distance. To me it simply looked like a gorgeous, somehow futuristic, liquid metal, rolling along that black desk like a ball bearing. Mr. Marin carefully scooped it up and put it back in its bottle, like a deadly genie. That’s how bad for you mercury is, kids.

So that’s what the companies were putting into something they were injecting into babies. It’s disgusting. Worse than that, RFK Jr. said, it’s been linked to autism, and the companies did nothing about it, in fact they suppressed this information.

The story left quite an impression on me. I was years away from parenthood at the time, but still, I swore, I would be extra-vigilant when it came to decide what to do regarding vaccinations for any child I should parent. And I vowed that day: no mercury.

I mean, it’s hard to imagine a worse fate for the average, healthy child than autism. One day your child is smiling, happy, communicative and loving. Seemingly overnight, though, they can become withdrawn, miserable, terrified of touch, and, worst of all for a hyper-verbal guy like me, never talk.

And, as you all know, a lot of people think the vaccines and the autism are linked. So we had to deal with those thoughts going in.

Then there is all the information out there, from reputable sources like the Mayo Clinic, that shows that the link between vaccines and autism is not proven. For example, the mercury has been removed from almost all vaccines, but the march of autism carries on as before.

The Center for Disease Control also says there is no link. Yes, they are an august government body, but can you trust them? When you learn more about our government you get the feeling, if you’re at all normal, that it’s a corrupt body littered with honest, caring people, who don’t necessarily run things.

Then there’s the debate about whether autism is more prevalent than ever, or just more diagnosed. My Dad said this, and I scoffed at him, but as I’ve done more research it seems that Dad isn’t the only one who feels this way. Lots of scientists do, too.

Another problem, they give so many vaccines nowadays; 22 by my last count. When I was a child the number was more like seven. I’m sorry, 22 seems like an awful lot, and they can’t vaccinate against AIDS, or cancer, or any of the really bad venereal diseases, all the stuff that really seems scary, so what in the hell do all these injections really do, anyway? If you’re at all like me you have to start wondering if this isn’t just a big money-making scam, because everything is a money-making scam.

I mean, it’s kind of ridiculous the vaccines they have in some cases. They wanted to give Stella, at 11 weeks of age, a vaccine for Hepatitis B, which is a sexually transmitted disease. Whoa, down boy! I know kids are precocious nowadays, but c’mon, can’t that wait, say, until she’s, I don’t know, ten? I just hate the thought of loading up this little tiny baby with all this stuff.
Such thoughts swirled through our heads as the BBM and I first talked to our doctors in Park Slope. Stella at this point was maybe two or three weeks old.

Our pediatrician, Dr. Price, is a nice man, and patiently answered our questions. “First of all we don’t use any mercury in our vaccines,” he said, which made us sigh, visibly.

“And out of them all the only one I might let you get away with not getting now is the one for Hep B,” he said, which we liked. “The other ones, though, you have to get or we can’t keep you as patients.”

He then handed out a bunch of pages that showed the rates of reaction among the children who receive the various vaccines. The extreme allergic reactions, that include unusually high fever, or worse, were quite rare: much less than 1%, according to official government statistics.

We had a few weeks to kill at this point, so we boned up on research at home. We read various articles, and consulted various official and un-official Web sites on the subject. And together we reached the conclusion that Stella is facing some risk either way, but the risk from not getting vaccinated is much greater than that from getting vaccinated. I mean, what if she got, say, polio, because we chose not to have her vaccinated? That would be inexcusable in our eyes, as it would be so preventable.

Not to mention that she wouldn’t be allowed in school without her full course.

Still, we had heavy hearts as we wheeled her into the pediatricians’ office yesterday. She is such a sweet, peaceful, happy little girl, and she is already communicating with us. The thought of any of that changing because of shots, as unlikely as it may be, haunted me.

The BBM, of course, had her own problems.

“I don’t know if I can do it,” she said, over and over, in the days leading up to the shots. “I don’t know if I can watch her suffer like that.”

Randi was also stricken by the perhaps illogical thought that Stella would somehow be angry at her, and, maybe even, hold a grudge about all this. The BBM of course also knew this was kind of crazy, but she couldn’t get the thought out of her mind.

I got out of work a little early just for the visit, and we showed up a little early, as well, for our appointment.

Once inside we gave Stella a dropper of Tylenol formulated for babies. It was a thick, syrupy concoction, bright red in color, and, of course, stuck to my hand like tar when I accidentally touched some.

Despite this Stella sucked it down, with only minimal mess. The magazine selection in the office, of course, was abysmal. For adults the only magazine they had was Good Housekeeping, which is a magazine, like so many, that mostly tells women how they should lose weight. I’m sorry, what the hell does that have to do with keeping a good house? The one I read featured Paula Dean on the cover, with her horrid, meringue-like hairdo.

This is a minor gripe of mine: almost all so-called neutral stuff about parenting is really all for women. We somehow got a free subscription to Parents magazine—like, here you go, here’s a kid, and your magazine!—and all the articles are really about womanly stuff, for women with kids. All the photos are of women with kids. Here’s the real giveaway of the demographic: all the ADS are for women, too. Follow the money, as they said in Watergate. “I didn’t get any stretch marks!” proclaims one ad, showing a long-haired woman holding a smiling, white child.

Yeah, you guys? The magazine is called Parents. Not Women Parents. In other words, dads are still seen as some kind of odd, sperm-and-money donating alien subspecies by pediatricians and the Baby Industrial Complex. Oh crap, maybe I should be grateful that we are left out. I can only imagine the ads they’d have for us: “My testicles are just fine!”

All too soon I finished that wonderful tome, and they told us it was time for our appointment.

Randi carried Stella, and I followed behind carrying everything else; my backpack, the diaper bag, Randi’s purse—which I carried, I did not put it over my shoulder. You have to draw the line somewhere.

There was first a standard appointment. I am proud to say she’s both heavier and longer, and in her respective 90th percentiles for these various things. Her head circumference, we were told, is only in the 75th percentile, so we will have to work on that at home on our own time.

Then came the moment of truth, the shots. First our doctor gave Stella a sweet liquid to drink, which she mostly did. At this point Randi realized she couldn’t watch, and walked away. So I moved in, and held Stella’s little hands in preparation for the shots to come. Her hands are so tiny now they fit into my hands completely, like little walnuts. She likes to hold onto us.

The good news is, it was all really quick. Two quick shots into either thigh, poof, like that; it must’ve taken all of one minute. Stella, barely cried after it was over, or even during it, which made us so proud. She even smiled a laughed a little once it was done. We were very proud of her.

We wheeled her home, and it was more of the same, with our baby only slightly more fussy than usual. We’d heard about babies that cried like fiends all that day and the next, so we braced ourselves. In a way it would be a return to old times, so we were ready. But the deluge never came.

Instead she seemed sleepy, if slightly fussy, once we got home. By 9:00 p.m. her bedtime deadline, she was out, asleep in her new crib that I’d assembled the day before with much wailing and gnashing of teeth.

And that was that.

Today, however, was less good. She had a fever for much of the day, and even got up to near 101 degrees. I was at work while this happened, and Randi came to the rescue, giving her cool baths, and every four hours, more baby Tylenol. Randi of course also fed Stella from Mom’s Dairy whenever she could, so Stella kept up on her liquids.

On my end I called the doctors’ office and made sure they in turn called the BBM, which they did. All this, they said, is normal. They don’t even see babies unless the fever lasts three days. To this I said, wow, three days? They said, yes, three days.

By later in the day the fever was under control, until it dropped back to normal by late afternoon. Randi and I talked back and forth all day, saddened that our girl was suffering, but hoping it was worth it.

We feel that it is, that the risks of not vaccinating are simply much greater than of doing it. We fear autism, of course, but are not convinced it has to do with the vaccine. All we can do is keep on the alert, as if that could change things.

Still, we agree, we’ll space out the next series of shots out further, to lower the risk of an adverse reaction. There are so many shots, it’ll lead to many more visits to the doctor. But we’ve got the time and it’s worth it to us.


Nora said...

FYI... you may not see a March of Dimes-"Dime" Box anymore, but they do have soda can top boxes at several locations here in town and the March of Dimes is VERY ACTIVE. Not with polio now, but with funding research to help treat and prevent pre-mature babies. I am honored to say that Jake, a sweet 2 year old in the Sunday School class that I teach was our "spokesbaby" and without the funding and research from the March of Dimes he would have died. He was born at 34 weeks and suffered from immature lungs. Here is his website for any who are interested in donating: http://www.marchforbabies.org/personal_page.asp?w=101000079&u=jakewilliams&bt=2

Just thought you should know...

Annie K. Nodes said...

First, congrats on your super cute baby. She's def a looker!

Reading this post is bringing me back. To like, 8 months ago, but still. I never questioned vaccinating for the reasons you mentioned. I knew they were safe now. And I'm in your dad's camp about autism, thinking that the rise in cases has more to do with better dianostic methods. (My aunt works with autistic kids and drove this home to me a zillion times when I was preggers.)

In addition to my son's safety, I honestly believe it's my responsibility as a member of society to keep my kid disease-free.

But it was so hard that first time!
Like Stella, Walt barely cried afterward. He didn't cry at all for his last 8-month round.

Also, love your take on the magazines. WTF is up with them? My husband is the primary caregiver and I bring in the bread, so it REALLY annoys me.

David Serchuk said...

Hi Nora,
Thanks for letting me know the March of Dimes is marching on. Up here you don't see much of them.

Anne, thank you for reading the blog, and your interesting comments. We definitely feel we did the right thing in vaccinating Stella, and it's good to hear that you also feel the autism issue might just be one of diagonisis.

Also, I enjoy your blog, btw.