The vaccine debate in Chicago isn’t just black and white

When the issues of vaccines comes up it often appears that there are only two sides. You either vaccinate or you don’t. That however is an oversimplification of a very complicated debate. There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of parents like me who neither trust all vaccines or shun them all. It’s a middle ground of wanting what’s best for our children and society, but not allowing our children to be guinea pigs or take unnecessary risks.

Before I chose to stay at home with my children, I worked in health care. In fact, I used to want to work for the CDC and I frequently worked with the FDA. I was a believer in vaccines and as an asthmatic I dutifully got my flu shot every year. When I had my first child (2005) we got all the vaccines on my doctors schedule (he does them all at the end of their required time frame). We even hunted down a flu vaccine that was in short supply and saw two different doctors to get it.

Then I started to read about vaccine side effects in the news and on blogs. Since my background was in health care and I had spent years doing research I started at reliable sources: CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly, JAMA the British Medical Journal and the National Vaccine Information Center, (as a counterpoint). I read research studies, the actually studies, not the synopsis given in the paper. What I found didn’t always make me feel better about vaccines.

First up was the chicken pox vaccine and the decision by the CDC to increase the dose from one shot to two. The first reason for the increase was that they were finding that since children receive the first dose at 12 months and outbreaks were occurring in second and third grade, the vaccine is apparently not as effective as the actual disease and does not provide lifelong immunity. The second reason for the additional dose was that parents would have to miss work to stay home with their children. Not the risk of complications from chicken pox, which according to the CDC is 100-150 children dying per year prior to the vaccine. However, I already stay home with my kids so missing work was not something I needed to factor in. I weighed the risk of severe reaction occurring, as well as the risks of the vaccine, which include a 25% chance you will still get the virus and decided it wasn’t worth the four shots (two for chicken pox and then two more for shingles since you don’t get the chicken pox). It was a calculated risk that my husband and I made after doing research and talking with our doctor. It was an informed decision based on evidence and facts from both sides of the debate. Both of my children had chicken pox. No one was hospitalized and in fact it was very mild. They probably caught the chicken pox (per my physician) from someone who was recently vaccinated since it’s a live vaccine.

For someone without my background, the problem is that it can be difficult to get that information to make an informed decision. You get more information before signing an informed consent for a surgical procedure than you do for a vaccine. When you start looking for research studies (on any vaccine) you’ll find the ones that are readily accessible and linked in major newspapers are mostly conducted by or funded by pharmaceutical companies who have an inherent interest in continuing to sell the vaccines. American media frequently doesn’t report findings by European scientists or journals. Why is the European health care system something politicians frequently praise and want to emulate in America but their research is not?

These pundits want to paint the picture of non-vaccinators as zealots who are hurt by misinformation and circumstance. I could easily play that card. I received the H1N1 vaccine on 12-7-2009 while pregnant. My baby died for no known reason sometime in January, around 17 weeks. I had no history, had delivered two healthy babies at term and genetics all came back normal. The grieving mom in me WANTS to blame the vaccine. I want to stand on the rooftops and shout “Pregnant women don’t get the H1N1!” The scientist in me can’t. I have ingrained in me that correlation is not causation, I am an outlier on the charts. The events (vaccine and miscarriage) are too far apart. As a mom, they are still too close together. I never got the flu vaccine while pregnant or trying to get pregnant again. My children no longer get it.

The research I found on miscarriage and H1N1 shows anywhere from a less than one percent to an over 700 percent increase depending on who the reporter is. However when it came time to get that shot in 2009, no one said “There’s a 1 percent or higher risk of miscarriage with H1N1 over seasonal flu.” No one showed me this chart that shows (using the government VAERS data) that despite the fact that more seasonal flu vaccines have been given, the rate of miscarriage is astoundingly higher for H1N1.

My ability to make an informed decision was stolen by a health care system that protects the bottom line of the pharmaceutical companies. Would I, would any mother, have chosen to take an increased risk of miscarriage over the risk of flu?

What many people who want to make the vaccine debate black and white are missing is this middle. The middle that want to believe and trust their doctors but have been burned or are confused by misinformation, lack of information or shoddy research (Anyone remember Vioxx?). With every recall and every study that contradicts another, we in the middle ground are becoming more and more skeptical.

We need to stop the parental bullying on both sides of the debate. We need to stop the name calling and pressure tactics and see how we can protect our children in a way that is best for everyone. We need to have an open dialogue with unbiased research. We need panels of doctors and scientists who are not on pharma’s payroll to design the guidelines for vaccine criteria. We need to remember that science is still performed by humans and is therefore fallible. Because no matter what side you are on; all, nothing or in the middle, we are all just trying to do what’s best for our children and their future.

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