When our daughters were babies, one of the most difficult parts of caring for them was taking them to our family doctor for scheduled immunizations. Watching them either sleeping peacefully or dispensing toothless, sloppy grins at the other people in the waiting room, knowing what they were in for, I felt like a criminal. Holding them still while the injection was performed, and hearing the sharp intake of breath, followed by the howl of pain …. For Fiona’s first vaccination, I held her facing me. Oh, the looks she gave me! Shock, and then terror, and then red-eyed reproach as noisy sobs slowed to the occasional hiccup. After that, I always turned her toward the doctor. Not fair to him, I suppose, but today she has a great relationship with Dr. Kasbia – as does Bridget, who, between the ages of one and three, used to start bawling as soon as we pulled into the parking lot of the clinic.
As hard as it was to cause those babies pain, I never once questioned the decision to have them vaccinated. Not even when my mother mentioned that there might be a connection between MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) immunization and autism …. This was based on a myth perpetuated by Andrew Wakefield, a now-disgraced scientist whose false report scared thousands of parents away from the MMR vaccine. He was proven wrong in 2010. My belief in the science of vaccination, and my desire to protect Fiona and Bridget from terrible diseases, made having them vaccinated imperative for me. Unfortunately, not everyone feels the same way. Many parents have decided to delay – and even skip – vaccinations for their children. In some cases, it’s based on fear of the side effects of vaccines. In other cases, it’s rooted in their religious beliefs. Either way, their actions – or, rather, lack thereof – have had, and will continue to have, dangerous consequences for all of us.
This is a map showing recent outbreaks of diseases for which we have safe, effective vaccines:
Measles is represented by red, mumps by brown, rubella by blue, polio by orange, and whooping cough by green circles. The yellow circles represent a group of other, less-common diseases.
For those of you who feel like you’ve heard this from me before, you have – it’s a drum I beat every now and then, usually after a story about another nearly-eradicated disease that has returned to haunt us because of parents who refuse to vaccinate their children. Today’s drum solo is brought to you by the return of measles to Ottawa. Measles is scary. It can lead to inflammation of the lungs, and encephalitis. It can cause miscarriages and birth defects. It kills thousands of people every year. Mumps can cause miscarriages, and infertility. It can lead to pancreatitis, and encephalitis. Rubella is best prevented because of its effect on the fetus of a pregnant woman if she contracts it. It can cause miscarriage or still-birth. If the child lives, he or she can be born with congenital rubella syndrome (CRS). Victims of CRS suffer from heart defects, blindness, deafness or other life-threatening organ disorders. Polio causes rapid paralysis. In some patients, the severity of the paralysis is such that they require the help of a machine to breathe. The flacidity of muscles can lead to skeletal deformities such as scoliosis and equinus foot. Whooping cough, also known as pertussis, is a virus characterized by a cough so harsh it has been known to cause fainting, hernias, and even collapsed lungs. Common complications include pneumonia, seizures and encephalopathy. The younger the patient, the more likely these complications are to occur.
Why wouldn’t everyone want to take advantage of the tools at their disposal to eradicate these horrible diseases? Maybe the images of children in iron lungs and polio victims trying to walk on twisted legs, the sad stories of ancestors who died in childhood of measles or whooping cough, the clustered tombstones of whole families struck down by diphtheria, have disappeared from the minds of this generation of parents? No matter. If we keep going the way we are, we’ll have created our own fresh gallery of horrors, experienced first-hand by our children.