Monthly Archives: January 2015

An Alternative to Vaccines: Voluntary Intentional Exposure

A kid sick in bed

Illustration by Cécile Graat

There seems to be this dichotomy where there are only two choices to protect our communities from preventable diseases: vaccinate or don’t vaccinate. I propose we offer a third option: doctor and CDC-monitored voluntary intentional exposure.

There are currently over 50 confirmed cases of measles in the U.S. right now. I suggest we offer families who choose not to vaccinate for philosophical beliefs (rather than medical or religious reasons) the option to have their unvaccinated child spend time with a known infected person to intentionally try to catch the disease. Some families have already tried these “pox parties” to try to get their children to develop natural immunity to chicken pox, but having doctors and the CDC monitor the exposure, quarantine, and treatment during the illness would likely make this safer and more effective.

One of the biggest problems with diseases like measles and pertussis is that it’s not immediately apparent that a person is infected and contagious. This would eliminate that uncertainty. You would know exactly when the child was exposed and be able to quarantine them while they’re contagious, have them monitored by their doctor and quickly provide treatments for any complications such as pneumonia or ear infection.

Once the child is no longer contagious, the quarantine can end, and the child can go back into the community with lifelong immunity. One more child contributing to herd immunity, without the need for a vaccine.

Parents who don’t vaccinate their children now are already taking the risk that their child will contract diseases naturally. I imagine if offered this option, many families would choose it. This must of course be voluntary and offered only as an opportunity. Coercing or compelling people is not effective.

Telling concerned parents who choose not to vaccinate their children to “Just Do It” is about as effective as the “Just Say No” to drugs campaign. If we want to increase the percentage of people who are immune to diseases like measles and pertussis, we need to offer other viable options.

Can We Have Meaningful Dialogue about Vaccinating?

Needle and vial

Photo by Brian Hoskins

I’ve been shocked by how quickly my Facebook feed went from showing Martin Luther King, Jr. quotes like, “Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that” to showing videos and sarcastic articles condemning parents who choose not to vaccinate their children. I get so frustrated seeing stuff like that because mocking and ostracizing people you disagree with might seem entertaining and validating, but it’s really just counterproductive.

Dr. Bob Sears wrote, “The answer won’t be to make everyone vaccinate; neither should the answer be to allow diseases to run rampant and kill people left and right. The answer needs to be somewhere in the middle, and it needs to include love, understanding, and calm-headed people who will actually stop and listen to each other.”

I understand why some parents are afraid to get their kids vaccinated. I slow vaccinated my son. He only got one vaccine per month so that if he were to have an adverse reaction, I would know exactly which vaccine it was, and he wouldn’t have to get any subsequent doses. Unfortunately, the only way to find out if someone has an adverse reaction is to get the vaccine. Some parents aren’t comfortable taking that risk.

Fortunately, neither of my kids had any adverse reactions to the vaccines. They occasionally had fevers, and my son vomited once or twice, but nothing more serious than that.

Reading side effect warnings can be pretty terrifying these days though. The prescription information provided by the pharmacist always seems to include dry mouth, seizures, and hallucinations for medication, even if it’s just to stop diarrhea. There have been reports of “long-term seizures, coma, and permanent brain damage“ after the DTaP vaccine. The information sheet states, “These are so rare it is hard to tell if they are caused by the vaccine,” but I can understand why that would give some parents pause.

There’s also the mentality that if my kid catches a disease naturally, they’ll have lifelong immunity. This is why people born before 1957 don’t need to get the measles or mumps vaccines. They’re so likely to have caught the diseases and are still immune.

Of course, catching chickenpox exposes people to developing shingles later in life. My mother-in-law got shingles, was in so much pain she lost the ability to walk, developed pneumonia, and then passed away, all over a period of a few months.

Still, vaccines are not infallible or perfect either. For one thing, they don’t always prevent infection. Six of the people who recently caught the measles at Disneyland were in fact vaccinated but for some reason not fully protected. People can still catch the flu even after getting the vaccine, although it can be milder than if the person were not vaccinated at all. Immunity can also wane over time, requiring booster shots.

Asking parents to vaccinate their children is asking them to take a calculated risk, except you don’t know what the actual calculation is. 1 in a trillion is meaningless if it turns our your kid is that one. Low probability is not necessarily persuasive to everyone.

Still, I’m grateful that my kids are less likely to pass on a preventable disease to our adult friends who have cancer, any friends we have who are allergic to eggs or yeast and aren’t able to get some vaccines, or to children who are too young to be vaccinated.

Reducing the spread of disease requires between 75-95% of people to be immunized, depending on the disease. How can we work together to get to those numbers? Not by ridiculing or condemning the people we want to persuade. There is no Us vs. Them in this. There is only Us, and we all need to work together to figure out how to protect our friends and families.

How Do I Tell My Son His Friend is Now a Girl?

A girl and a boy

Please check out my guest post on My Migraine Family about explaining to Zach about his friend being transgender.