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Vaccinators vs. Non-Vaccinators: Deciding When (and If) to Immunize Your Child

doctor holding newborn baby

When Heather Sanders, a mother of three from Huntsville, Texas, brought her youngest child to the hospital to get treatment for reactive airway disease, she was in for more stress than just dealing with a sick child: Doctors tried to blame the disease on her. Why? Sanders had chosen to delay vaccinating her children.

She's not alone. A greater number of parents are choosing to either delay or opt out of vaccinating their children. Though the reasons vary from worries about autism to concerns about the ingredients in the vaccines, more and more parents are educating themselves and choosing when and if they will vaccinate.

Standing Up for Your Beliefs

Because she had investigated her options for her children so thoroughly, Sanders never thought that doctors would try to point the finger at her.

"I cannot tell you how much of a challenge it has been to deal with the doctors and nurses that treat me as if I'm the least-informed parent on the face of the Earth," the work-from-home mom says.

Thanks to expanding technology, parents are turning to a variety of sources including the Internet to learn about issues that concern their children. Parents on both sides of the vaccination debate are informing themselves and making decisions that are best for their families.

Every parent wants what is best for their child. But with all the information available, it is hard to decide what, exactly, is the best thing for kids. Here are the stories of four parents who have made very different decisions about vaccinating their children.

Vaccines and Autism

For Sanders, seeing the 18-month-old son of a family friend react to his vaccines was what helped make up her mind to delay vaccinating her children. According to Sanders, the boy has autism and test results point towards his 18-month vaccinations.

"I saw that young boy every single week," she says of the boy who had functioned normally up until that round of immunizations at the age of 18 months. "That was the single largest impact to stand my ground."

Sanders has educated herself with books and has received support online. After much study, she decided to delay beginning the vaccination routine until after her children turned 3.

She admits that she originally thought not to vaccinate her children at all, but decided to research more and came up with the delayed vaccination schedule. She decided on age 3 because she didn't want to vaccinate the children as babies, but didn't want to give them all their vaccines at once; the delayed schedule will ensure they complete their vaccinations before school.

Weighing the Risks

Cassandra North of The Woodlands, Texas also follows a delayed vaccination schedule for her 1-year-old daughter, Nell.

North and her husband are delaying both the MMR and the DTap vaccines until Nell turns 18 months. She has decided to delay because she believes there is no harm in doing so and because of the limited research she has found linking autism and the MMR vaccine.

North cites her grandfather, a physician who was part of the distribution of the first wave of polio vaccinations, as a main influence on her decisions.

She said, "I weighed up the risks versus the off chance she were to contract something like pertussis, and the adverse effects an illness like that can have on a little body, and felt confident that I was making a prudent decision for Nell."

For Megan Everitt, the decision to vaccinate her 4-month-old son, Dylan, was based on a belief that vaccinating her son gives him the best chances at a strong beginning.

"I know that by vaccinating him, the same way my parents vaccinated me and their parents vaccinated them, I am taking the opportunity to help him be protected and to be able to lead a healthy life," said Everitt, who lives in Akron, Ohio.

Everitt has heard about the concerns between the link of mercury and autism and admits it does worry her but points out that she is a new mom and that many things worry her.

"[The possibility of a link] scares me, but I've come to realize that everyone will have a different opinion and there is no proof that one opinion is more right than the next," she said.

Everitt admits that she has never really considered not vaccinating an option.

"I've read the material that every company and organization puts out there," she said. "I've read the What to Expect books and all the other parenting books...and, in the end, when it came time to really, truly decide on vaccinating him, I didn't second-guess myself. I looked at the history of vaccinations and I looked at all of the people I knew who were vaccinated, and in looking at that and realizing that everyone I knew was vaccinated and turned out just fine, that was enough research for me."

Before she gave birth to her son, Jagger, in 2003, Kellie Herring wasn't sure how she felt about vaccinations. She and her husband declined vaccines in the hospital but eventually started to vaccinate their son.

Herring, however, couldn't stop thinking that there was something wrong with her newborn.

"I knew around six weeks that something was not quite right with Jagger," said Herring, who lives in Florida. "He was just different than most babies his age. I never thought about the vaccine playing a part of that."

As time went on, however, they realized something was wrong with their only child. Doctors diagnosed him with an autism spectrum disorder in 2005. Right around that time, Herring became concerned with the ingredients in the vaccines.

"My husband and I agreed to not do any 'all-in-ones' and to break [the vaccines] up," she said. "We refused chickenpox and the flu vaccine. The flu was what I was seriously concerned about. The adult vaccine contains thimerosal [also known as thiomersal, an organic mercury compound thought to possibly contribute to or cause neurodevelopmental disorders in children] and the child vaccine contains a lesser amount, but it is still there. I also have issues with fetal tissue being used in vaccines and still do to this day. I am for the most part pro-life, so this issue has caused an internal struggle."

She still isn't sure what caused her son's autism, but has decided not to vaccinate Jagger anymore. She and her husband have not decided if they will vaccinate any future children. For Herring, it is an issue of seeking out the truth.

"I don't believe anyone can say 'Yes, vaccines cause autism or no, they don't,'" she said. "There is way too much evidence that can support both sides. Not to mention, vaccines are big business here in the States and kickbacks are outstanding. Does that play a part? I believe, in some cases, it does."

Presenting a Balanced Point of View

For Dr. James Herrin, FAAP, a general pediatrician in Conroe, Texas, having parents with concerns over vaccines is not a recent issue. When a parent comes to him with questions about vaccinating her child, Dr. Herrin seeks to give the parent information so she can make an informed decision: He hands them pamphlets with information on the vaccines and points them to Web sites, including a few of the "anti-vaccine" sites, so the parent can read both sides of the issue.

He, however, believes parents are getting an unbalanced view of vaccines from the media.

"[Parents] are concerned," the father of three said, referring to the 'conspiracy theories' and the suggested link to autism. "They've heard a lot of things. The media is not presenting a balanced approach."

Dr. Herrin said he is more concerned with the welfare of the children and their families than anything else, pointing out that diseases like diphtheria and polio are just a plane ride away -- or just a plane ride into America -- as in countries such as Russia and Mexico, many parents do not have enough money to vaccinate their children.

"These illnesses are still around," he says. "It is not a benign thing." Dr. Herrin chose to have his own children vaccinated.

Concern for Future Outbreaks

Dr. Martin Myers, the Director for the National Network of Immunization Information, is worried that there will be a measles outbreak in the future, due in part to parents declining the MMR (measles, mumps, and rubella) vaccine.

"Measles is a really ugly disease," Dr. Myers says, pointing out side effects such as encephalitis, brain damage, and death.

While Dr. Herrin has some patients whose parents choose to delay vaccinating their young children, he points out the risks of doing so. "These illnesses are more serious in younger children. If everyone delays, we'd have a lot of sick kids."

Dr. Myers agrees, pointing out that there is no such thing as a vaccine that is 100 percent safe, but still feels that he supports vaccinations, and adds that his children and grandchildren have all been immunized.

Dr. Myers encourages parents who have questions to seek out the answers from a medical profession they trust, and not just what's passed as "truth."

"If you have questions, ask a pediatrician," he said. "There's an awful lot of misinformation on the Internet. Google doesn't differentiate between misinformation and good information."

Dr. Herrin agrees that when seeking out information on vaccines, it is important to read about it from all perspectives.

"I help parents realize it is important to be informed," he says. "It is important to get balanced information and not just one point of view."

 

Rachel Mosteller is a freelance writer and mother of two in Houston, Texas.

Originally published on AmericanBaby.com, July 2006.

The information on this Web site is designed for educational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for informed medical advice or care. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat any health problems or illnesses without consulting your pediatrician or family doctor. Please consult a doctor with any questions or concerns you might have regarding your or your child's condition.