I have been fortunate to have had the ‘flu only occasionally, mostly in fairly mild doses, and only once severely, when I was at high school: that, as I recall, followed one of the few times I had had a ‘flu shot. Looking back, this should have been my first clue that vaccines weren’t necessarily what they were supposed to be.
As a child, I had the standard vaccinations of the day – three doses each of triple antigen and injected polio, and, later, smallpox, without any (known) side-effects, – and cycled through the then-customary childhood ‘triple’ of measles, mumps and chickenpox, with only minor discomfort, not to mention the immeasurable comfort of not having to go to school while being looked after by my long-suffering mother. My wife Nina’s experience was not wholly different, except that by the time she was born, the MMR vaccine had been too, and so she had that, rather than the illnesses.
Thus, when Alice – our first child – was born 15 months ago, we didn’t have much in the way of knowledge or experience (other than my well-founded suspicion of ‘flu shots) on which to base a decision not to vaccinate Alice, or to vaccinate her for that matter. Without being aware of it, we both probably subscribed to the generally-held view of vaccines as necessary and useful, not because we actually held that view, but rather because we had never had any reason to question it. Both of us, though, have always tended towards the more holistic healing systems, homeopathy in particular. We also had a friend in the US who had chosen not to vaccinate her children, at least until they were 12 months old, and then only on a selective basis. In addition, we knew that several of the women who had helped with Alice’s birth and afterwards hadn’t had their children vaccinated. So we were aware, at least, that choosing not to vaccinate was an alternative. That was where we started.
We have, as of now, chosen not to vaccinate Alice, and this is an account of how we arrived at that decision. It is not about the politics of vaccination, nor is it about the safety or efficacy of the vaccines. It is simply a personal account of my and Nina’s journey across this enormously complex, but critically important, landscape. I am not a public health expert, an immunologist, epidemiologist, or any other relevant “-ologist”. I don’t seek to persuade anyone to do one thing or another, and I make no judgment whatsoever with respect to any decision parents might make in this regard. All I hope to do is encourage parents to take the time and ask the questions before making a decision, regardless of what decision they ultimately reach. We have found this to be perhaps the most difficult decision we have had to make since Alice first appeared in our lives, and we still have our moments of doubt and soul-searching. Every time I read or hear of a child, for instance, who has died or suffered brain damage as a result of contracting some strain of meningitis against which a supposedly effective vaccine exists, I die a thousand deaths myself. The ‘what if?’ of not vaccinating – which we are constantly reminded of by the government, the media and conventional medicine – is always there. So too, but you have to dig for it a bit, is the ‘what if?’ of vaccinating. There are countless examples of this. Sometimes I resign myself to being damned either way. But it’s a decision we, as parents, all have to make, and should make, actively, not by default, and be prepared to be fully responsible for the consequences. There is now a vast amount of readily available information concerning all aspects of vaccination. Being uninformed, therefore, might have been excusable when I was a child. Today it simply is not.
Within a day of Alice being born, one of the hospital midwives asked us when we would like her to have her first hepatitis B vaccination. We had already been given a copy of the Department of Health and Aged Care’s booklet “Understanding Childhood Immunisation”, which both of us had glanced through. Even in our state of relative ignorance, however, we didn’t have to think much before declining this offer: my understanding was that hepatitis B was prevalent among IV drug users and those who had high-risk sex. Neither Nina nor I fell into either category, and Alice certainly didn’t, so why was she being vaccinated against it when she was barely out of the womb? It seemed to be plainly absurd. The midwife didn’t have much to say other than that it was “recommended”; we signed a form saying we had refused it, and that was that. This episode was a catalyst of sorts, for if we had had doubts about vaccination to begin with, it served only to intensify them.
We had, around the time Alice was born, obtained a copy of Mothering Magazine’s Vaccination: The Issue of Our Times, and set about reading it cover-to-cover. We both found it immensely useful and informative, and an excellent place to start, particularly the section titled “The Experts’ Forum” (which is one of the few instances I have found where some kind of debate is actually engaged in on the issue of vaccination by experts having differing views) and the several chapters by Richard Moskowitz, an American MD and homeopath who writes in a way that is clear, comprehensible and, in my view, compelling.
In contrast to the Mothering Magazine publication, we found the government’s booklet to be both manipulative and frequently misleading. The discussion in the early pages of the booklet of the terms ‘vaccination’ and ‘immunisation’ offers a good example of this: having just acknowledged that immunity does not always follow vaccination, the authors nonetheless go on to say that the term ‘immunisation’ will be used throughout the book “because this is the expression that is most commonly used in the community”, thus disposing, by wondrous sleight of hand, of one of the most critical issues of the entire debate – the efficacy of the vaccines. This is but one example; there are many others, concerning aspects of vaccination about which parents ought to be fully informed, that anyone reasonably conversant in the field will readily find. Unfortunately, this is probably all a significant number of parents will ever read before vaccinating their children.
As we learned more about the various illnesses, our focus became – and continues to be – more selective. When Alice was a small baby, we were particularly concerned about whooping cough. We have never been worried about her contracting hepatitis b, nor, until she was walking at least, tetanus. Diphtheria and polio could clearly be serious, but all our research suggested that the risk of her contracting either was one we could live with. Even now, at 15 months, whooping cough can still be serious, but it’s a risk we can live with too, especially in light of our concerns about the vaccine’s safety (even in its acellular form) and effectiveness, and the fact that we see no reason that she be vaccinated against diphtheria (at all) or tetanus (at this stage of her life). The various forms of bacterial meningitis against which supposedly effective vaccines are widely available – haemophilus influenzae type b (hib) and meningococcal type c – will always be a concern but, as of now, not enough of a concern to outweigh our doubts about both the short- and long-term safety of the vaccines. MMR we view as problematic: with widespread vaccination against these illnesses now common, the chances of her catching them in the old-fashioned way are probably slim, thus leaving her exposed to them as an adolescent or young adult, when they can be much more serious. It’s highly doubtful, however, that even if she were vaccinated as a child, she would be protected later in life, if at all. On balance, therefore, we currently see little point in her having this vaccination either.
A significant part of our process has always been managing, to the extent we could, whatever risk there was of her contracting any of these illnesses, particularly the ones we were concerned about. Until she was eight months old, she was wholly breast-fed, which we viewed as important. We also tried, so far as possible, to keep her away from public places – markets, shopping malls, public transport and the like -, especially as her first winter descended on us. And we postponed a trip back to the US, viewing long-haul air travel as a risky venture for a baby, vaccinated or not. Playgroups and the like we also tended to avoid, perhaps over-cautiously, not the least because many of the other children in them were on the recommended vaccination schedule and we still weren’t satisfied that she couldn’t pick up polio from a child recently vaccinated with OPV. In short, at least for her first nine months, we kept her on the breast and close to home.
It was also important to us that we seek the views of Alice’s paediatrician, and her GP. Quite clearly, we were heading in the direction of not vaccinating her – at all -, and I doubted we would hear anything from any of her doctors that would convince us to do otherwise. But being open to the possibility was nonetheless a significant part of the process. My conversation with her paediatrician was brief: in response to my request that I come and talk to him about vaccination, I was simply told that he was “very pro-vaccination”. I thought it best to let it go at that. Her GP was open to the discussion, and I spent over an hour talking through all aspects of the decision with him. Quite properly, in my view, he made no recommendation as to whether we should vaccinate her or not, making it clear that this was a decision we had to make. After all, we, as her parents, would have to live with the consequences, whatever they might be.
We also gave extensive consideration to homeopathic prophylaxis as an alternative. Perhaps the best-known advocate of this in Australia is Dr. Isaac Golden. I spoke with him personally and read some of the material he has published on the issue. While we agreed in general with his observation that at least some of the childhood illnesses are “worth preventing”, and while we also, as I indicated earlier, use homeopathy as our principal means of treating everyday ailments, we decided, for the time being at least, not to pursue this alternative. In the end result, we were both coming to the view that, for purposes of long-term protection, Alice’s immune system was best left to its’ own devices, free of any interference of any kind, conventional or otherwise, and that in the short term, if she were actually faced with a particular illness, we would use whatever form of treatment seemed necessary or appropriate in the circumstances. And in any event, to “vaccinate” homeopathically seemed unnecessary, for all the evidence indicates that the homeopathic remedies work well when illness is actually present or threatening.
Where we are now by no means represents an end point. The decision not to vaccinate is not, in our view, one that can be made and then put away: it needs to be constantly reviewed both as Alice grows and moves deeper in to the world and as new information becomes available about the safety and efficacy of the vaccines currently available and, more important perhaps, about their long-term (and still largely unknown) effects on the immune system generally. In addition, taking responsibility for the decision we have made so far means, in our view, taking active steps to ensure we are prepared if Alice were to contract any of these illnesses. As Dr. Moskowitz observes:
Taking responsibility for not vaccinating is no different
from taking responsibility for a homebirth or any other