What Do Law And Order, A Trip To the Beauty Parlor, And Childhood Vaccines Have In Common?

mama-to-mama1111Okay, I confess. I’m a Law and Order junkie. But you have to realize that until about a year ago, I had never even seen the show. Once I did though, I got hooked.

Anyway, a couple weeks ago, I saw this old episode about a baby who died under mysterious circumstances. All fingers pointed to the deadbeat mom, until that great medical examiner with the constantly changing hair color figured out that the child had died from the measles!

Then, of course, the hunt was on to figure out what really happened.  Eventually, the crack detectives traced it to a different mother who didn’t believe in childhood vaccines. Her four-year-old had gotten the measles and recovered, but the day before he got sick, he had played in the same playground as that other little girl, and since he was contagious for many hours before the symptoms showed up, he had unknowingly infected her, too.

Since the little girl was one and a half (and had the typical Law and Order, not-so-terrific mother) she hadn’t gotten her shot yet. But even if her mom had been Michelle Obama, she might not have gotten it yet — first dose is given sometime between 12 and 15 months. So she was at high risk of contracting it, if exposed.

So anyway, Logan and his partner find the mother and ask a few questions, like “Why didn’t you vaccinate your son?” Now I gotta tell you, this was a good mother. She really was trying to do what she thought was BEST for HER child. She got a little defensive and said that the fact that her son’s body handled the disease so well proved that he didn’t need the shot.

She didn’t know that measles germs stayed active for some time after her son was out of the swing and off the slide. She had never thought about how he could infect someone who hadn’t had the shot yet, and whose body wouldn’t handle it so well. Which, in TV land is exactly what happened. “Wow,” I thought. Powerful story!

The very next day, I went to the hair salon. My stylist was getting over a cold and didn’t feel like talking, but the lady next to me, and her stylist, were having a very loud and animated conversation– about childhood vaccines!

What I heard really got me going, especially after that Law and Order episode. The woman getting the hair cut said she wasn’t vaccinating her son because he was “just a baby, and it’s too much for his system to handle.”

She also pointed out that she had breast fed, so his immune system was strong and would protect him. Then she said she was afraid he might get autism and also mentioned that the polio vaccine was ridiculous, because that disease was obsolete. She ended her tirade with the statement “Anyway, it’s my kid and my choice.”

I was stunned — by the incredibly inaccurate information she was spreading around and by her apparent lack of concern for anyone else. I figured it was just her though, and that she didn’t speak for many others.

But as I told this story to other mothers, I heard over and over again how widespread some of this thinking is. So I have to open my mouth and try to correct some of the crazy stuff that’s being passed around as cold hard fact.

Let’s start with the polio statement:

Obsolete? I was in India last winter while a massive campaign was on to vaccinate against it. Health workers were going door-to-door to try and reach as many people as possible to contain an ongoing epidemic. In 2008, there were more than 500 cases of polio in India alone. Worldwide, the incidence was up 26% from the year before.

So no, polio IS NOT obsolete. Our efforts to vaccinate against it have made it pretty rare in the USA. But it’s alive and thriving in various other parts of the world, and could certainly reemerge.

My dad had polio as a child and was paralyzed and in quarantine for a year. Luckily, he recovered, but never forgot the pain and struggle of that time. When the vaccine first became available, he rushed us kids down to get it immediately — anything to spare us what he had gone through.

Next: Is it true that breast feeding will protect your child?

Against what? Breast feeding does help protect against respiratory and gastrointestinal infections in young children, not to mention being a perfect first food. But it’s not magic. It will not prevent your baby from getting whooping cough, measles, mumps, polio or hepatitis. Using breast milk to fight those threats would be like shooting a hungry, ready-to-pounce polar bear with a BB gun.

What about the statement: “He’s just a baby and his system can’t handle it?”

Well, let’s back up a minute.  The reason these vaccines are given to children when they are so small is because their systems can’t handle the diseases they are being protected from! Vaccines work by fooling the immune cells into gearing up to fight a nasty invader. Then, when the real thing shows up, they’re safe.

Of course, there is a risk factor involved in ANYTHING you do. But the risk level associated with childhood immunizations is very, very small. And doing nothing carries a risk too. Before vaccines, these diseases killed tens of thousands of kids each year.

And then we come to that big, scary concern about autism.

It’s true that autism rates have risen and we are hearing stories from parents who are convinced that the vaccines caused it in their children. I know several people with autistic kids so I know it’s a frightening and devastating diagnosis. And when celebrities go on television and start quoting statistics and anecdotes as if they are experts, it adds more confusion and panic.

BUT… I have also talked to many pediatricians, and none believe there is a link. What’s going on is not yet clear, but there’s a lot more evidence that says there is no connection than that which says there is.

Finally, how about that statement, “It’s my kid and my choice?”

Well, none of us live in a bubble. You go to Target and pop your little one in the cart and he touches the bar that is touched again by an unsuspecting, at-risk child or adult a few minutes later. And they get sick. Maybe they’ll be okay, and maybe they’ll end up in the ICU.

What you do, and don’t do, affects not only your child, but other children and adults as well. These are contagious diseases we’re talking about, and we all interact a lot.

This is not an easy conversation to have, but as moms we need to look carefully at the WHOLE thing, not just our little piece of it. I’m not trying to tell you what to do with your kids, just raise issues you may not have considered.

Do we have a responsibility to all children, or just our own? Was the woman in the beauty parlor right? Is it simply a matter of “her kid and her choice” or is there more at stake here?

Let us know what YOU think!

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Ellen W. Schrier, LCSW, is a family therapist and the mother of three adolescent/young adult kids.

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