'In a world of so many information sources, it's easy to get the wrong idea.'
It was just after 3 p.m., and school was done for the day.
My classmates were all whooping and bounding about the playground, stopping to wave as their parents arrived to collect them. I spied my mom and ran over to her.
On the way home, she told me that I would not be going in tomorrow; instead, I was going to stay home.
As a child who loved school, my heart sank. My mom said that I had to stay at home because the other children would be getting their measles vaccine tomorrow.
We didn't believe in immunization, though, so I wouldn't be getting vaccinated.
My mom felt it was best that I stayed home on the day the children were injected with the measles vaccine. She said it was "live." If I was at school, there was a risk it would infect me.
Not every vaccination day was like this, though; I typically went to school as usual, but I didn't join my classmates as they queued up for their shot. When they asked me why I wasn't joining in, I'd explain that I didn't have vaccinations. My mom thought they were bad for me — that they'd potentially weaken my immune system.
Fast forward to 2018: I've just had a round of travel vaccinations in preparation for a 6-week trip to Australia, Singapore, and Thailand. So what changed? What made me finally reject my mom's antivaccination stance?
Why didn't my mom believe in vaccinations?
When I was 3 months old, I had the first round of childhood vaccinations. In the United Kingdom in the late 1980s, this was called the DTP vaccine. It protected against diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis (also known as whooping cough).
After the DTP vaccine, my mom noticed that I seemed irritable and that my normal sleep patterns were disrupted. She felt that the vaccinations were to blame.
Her conclusion was based, in part, on the antivaccination literature that was around in the 70s and 80s. In the U.K., a 1974 report mistakenly alleged that 36 children had developed neurological conditions as a result of receiving the DTP vaccine.
Although scientists now know that they are safe, it was big news at the time.
Seeking answers, my mom went to see a homeopath. The homeopath agreed that the vaccinations had likely caused the changes to my moods and sleep.
The homeopath recommended some remedies that they said would help counteract the negative impact the vaccines appeared to have had. They also introduced my mom to the idea that homeopathy could offer an alternative way to vaccinate me.
At this point, my mom decided that I would not have any more childhood vaccinations. Her choice seemed wise when, in 1998, a study by conducted Dr. Andrew Wakefield — whose work has now been discredited — claimed to have discovered a link between the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine and autism.
My experience of homeopathy
I continued to see a homeopath regularly throughout my childhood, and I enjoyed going. I enjoyed going even more so than going to the doctor — who I did still see from time to time.
When I saw the doctor, the appointment was quick; usually 10 minutes or under. We didn't seem to discuss much. It seemed as if the doctor would just nod and then prescribe something quickly, without really explaining why.
With a homeopath, things were different. We would talk for about an hour. They would ask me how I was feeling. I remember talking about my moods, my physical health, my sleep, and what I'd been up to at school.
After we had talked, the homeopath would pause and think. They would flick through various well-thumbed books. Then, they would prescribe a homeopathic remedy, carefully explaining why. Listening to them describe how it would help me was calming. It made me feel good.
Questioning my beliefs
I didn't really question the fact I'd not been vaccinated — or my mom's decision for not vaccinating me — until I was in my 20s.
In my early 20s, I was studying for my Law degree at the University of Sussex in Brighton, England. I loved it and excelled in seminars. I immersed myself in legal philosophy, causation, and reason. Researching and writing essays was immensely satisfying, and I enjoyed having to evidence my arguments.
Outside of my studies, I developed a keen interest in atheism, and from here, I started to develop a healthy habit of questioning my beliefs, assumptions, and inherited ideologies. What were they based on?
This process of philosophical development led me to question homeopathy. The more I read, the less I believed that the practice had any scientific basis. That said, I didn't question that seeing a homeopath had therapeutic benefits; it was, after all, similar to a therapy session.
Why I decided to get vaccinated
Having decided that I didn't believe in the remedy side of homeopathy, I started to think about the fact I hadn't been vaccinated. What was that based on? Did I agree with my mom's reasoning?
I read about how immunization works. I found myself agreeing with the science. I decided that if I were to have a child, I'd want to vaccinate them. I also decided that I should discuss getting vaccinated myself.
It took me a while to act on this decision, but this month, I finally took the plunge.
Getting vaccinated as an adult
I went to see the nurse at my doctor's surgery and explained that I'd not had most of my childhood vaccinations. The nurse advised me on which vaccinations made most sense to have as an adult.
We prioritized the ones I'd require for my upcoming trip, and I ended up having three vaccinations: hepatitis A, diphtheria, and tetanus. The last two were boosters, as I had had the first round of those as a baby.
The injections did sting a little, and my arms were a little achy for a couple of days — but other than that, being vaccinated was uneventful. It didn't make me feel unwell at all.
The nurse advised that I should consider getting the MMR vaccine, too — particularly if I plan to get pregnant. Contracting rubella when pregnant can lead to miscarriage. I've decided I'll definitely get the MMR vaccine if I do decide to have a baby.
Agreeing to disagree
No evidence was ever found to support the 1974 allegation that the DTP vaccine caused harm, and researchers have since discredited Dr. Wakefield's work, concluding that there is no link between autism and MMR.
I feel that not vaccinating me was the wrong choice, but I do have empathy for my mom's decision in light of the misinformation she was exposed to. What's more, I can see how she found the process of getting me vaccinated distressing.
Jabbing a baby in the arm is bound to make them irritable. Maybe introducing foreign bodies into their bloodstream does throw them out of balance for a few days, and maybe it will even disrupt their sleep.
After a vaccination, a child's immune system is working out how best to fight the intruders. It is through this process that they develop an immunity.
If parents do observe what they consider to be a slight adverse reaction, is it really that surprising? Does it mean that immunization is bad for the baby and should be avoided? I'd say not.
Community versus individual choice
I think that my mom may have framed the problem in the wrong way. Perhaps the decision whether to vaccinate should not be framed as an individual choice; because, in isolation, it's possible to see how a parent may decide that the discomfort of vaccination outweighs its benefits.
After all, most of the population does get vaccinated. Therefore, the risk of catching the diseases we immunize against are fairly low. The majority of the population is vaccinated, so some individuals can get away with not being immunized — but should they?
Arguably, the decision to vaccinate a child is bigger than personal choice. Immunization is about community. The decision to vaccinate is a decision to safeguard our herd immunity.
What would happen without vaccinations?
The question is not whether each child would be better off if they avoided vaccinations, but rather, how would the decision not to vaccinate your child affect our health as a community, a nation, and globally?
What would happen if the majority of people decided not to vaccinate their children?
To prevent the outbreak of disease within a population, a high percentage of the population need to be vaccinated against that disease. When people choose not to vaccinate their children, the percentage of the population that is immune drops.
If large numbers of people choose not to vaccinate their children, it is much more likely that outbreaks of the diseases we vaccinate against will occur.
What my experience has taught me
My experience with vaccinations taught me that in a world of so many information sources, it's easy to get the wrong idea. Reports based on flawed or unscientific studies are dangerous...particularly when the press gets hold of them.
Had there been more information about how babies respond to vaccinations, maybe my mom may have been less concerned about my apparent adverse reaction. Specialists need to guide parents through the vaccination process.
People always want to protect their children in the best way they know how. Parents need access to accurate, easy-to-understand health information that is based on scientific evidence.
My lesson has been that it is always important to question things. Our parents share their beliefs with us in good faith, but it is our role as adults to examine the rationale for those beliefs and decide whether to keep believing them.