I don't agree with anti-vaxxers, but I understand them

My experience as a first-time mom made me wonder if the dismissive way doctors treat women might have a lot to do with fears about vaccination.

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When I first became pregnant, it didn’t occur to me to question whether or not I would vaccinate my child. It was just something you did.

In fact, I didn’t wonder much in general about the medical model of pregnancy, childbirth and beyond. I figured that as long as I read a book or two and followed my doctor’s advice, my kid would be healthy and everything would be fine. Every parent I knew had followed the same basic path: Find an OB, give birth in a hospital, check all the boxes and hit every milestone. I had no idea that any other framework existed.

But then I did pick up a book or two and joined a few “crunchy” parenting communities online. I soon discovered that reading about pregnancy and childbirth was like slipping into an alternate universe where solid facts were suddenly revealed to be far more fluid. I came across articles on home birth, unassisted birth and vaccine skepticism. I learned that many of the advocates for these ideas were as convinced by their righteousness as western doctors are about their own. I found that most any parenting debate veers almost immediately toward worst-case scenarios, with people on all sides of the debate accusing their opponents of child abuse. Every parent is terrified of making the wrong choices for their children, which makes sense. The problem is that fear takes over everything. It suffocates any other possibility.

By the end of my pregnancy, I was so inundated with advice, opinions and seemingly conflicting “facts” that I found myself struggling to figure out what side I was on. From a distance, this basic path had looked pretty straightforward, but close up it was patchy with quicksand. I couldn’t tell which steps were safe and which would drag me under.

Alt textWhen facts aren't enough: Why some parents are scared of vaccines

I honestly didn’t set out to be a difficult patient, but I soon learned that some doctors and nurses (or at least my doctors and nurses) have a low tolerance for inquisitive pregnant women. I was brushed off multiple times, given responses that were evasive, dismissive and sometimes flat-out untrue. One nurse told me that skin-to-skin—a practice that involves holding your newborn to your bare chest shortly after birth that has been shown to have many benefits for both parent and baby—was never practised in operating rooms after a C-section. When I mentioned that other hospitals did this, she told me I was wrong. Not only was I not wrong—I knew that it was done at other hospitals—but skin-to-skin is now practised in the OR at the hospital where I gave birth. During another appointment, the doctor I was seeing called another well-respected doctor I referenced a “quack.” And when I went to fill a prescription for post-C-section painkillers, the pharmacist told me they weren’t safe to take while breastfeeding, even though hospital staff had repeatedly assured me they were. With healthcare professionals contradicting each other, how was I supposed to figure out the right thing to do?

As my son’s first set of scheduled vaccinations loomed, I became increasingly panicked. I wasn’t worried about autism—the Wakefield study, which had always seemed fishy to me, has been repeatedly debunked and the author stripped of his medical licence. My concern was with myself: I didn’t feel confident that, with all the information I had, I was equipped to make a smart, safe decision about vaccines. For every pro, there seemed to be a perfectly legitimate con. And it didn’t help that my husband had had a semi-serious adverse reaction to a vaccine as a baby and had consequently required a modified schedule. What if our son had inherited this vaccine intolerance? Were the ingredients safe for such a tiny baby? It didn’t add up to me that I was supposed to abstain from all alcohol during pregnancy but, shortly after his birth, my son would be injected with vaccines that contained things like aluminum, formaldehyde and mercury. I wasn’t so much anti-vaccination as I was frozen with fear.

If a healthcare worker had taken the time to reassure me that mercury derivatives are not used in any vaccines given to children, or that aluminum is present in many things a baby is exposed to (including breastmilk and formula), I might have felt differently. But every time I voiced my vaccine concerns to doctors or nurses, they would condescend to me, treating me like a child who doesn’t know what’s good for her—a tactic that, in my experience, doesn’t do much to increase a patient’s confidence.

I know that I’m not the only woman left disoriented by and distrustful of medical professionals after pregnancy and childbirth. We’re only beginning to understand postpartum post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)—which involves feelings of fear, helplessness and horror (and sometimes flashbacks and hallucinations) after a harrowing birth where mom and/or baby was at risk of serious injury or death. Recent studies from McGill University and the University of Tel Aviv in Israel estimate that about one-third of postpartum women suffer some elements of PTSD and three to seven percent have full-blown cases. While there is no single predictor for whether a woman will experience postpartum PTSD, studies have shown increased incidence among women who experience anxiety, who deliver vaginally or have perceived lack of support or control during labour (among other factors). I know far too many women who have traumatic birth stories to tell, who report interventions during their hospital births that were done against their wishes or without their consent. Yes, in emergency situations interventions are necessary, but I’ve heard many cases where speed or efficiency were prioritized ahead of a labouring woman’s comfort and peace of mind, with little communication or care taken for the woman in this vulnerable position.

These are some of the women—second-guessed, minimized, overruled by medical professionals—who are making decisions about vaccinating (or not vaccinating) their children. Is it any wonder some of them choose a different path? After my own experiences from pregnancy through postpartum, I get it.

In the end, I did choose to vaccinate my son. I did my due diligence, searching out unbiased information on vaccines and vaccine injury, and had many long conversations with my husband and my sister (the scientist in the family). Through my own efforts, I learned more about vaccinations than I ever had from a healthcare worker. Finally, I decided to take a science-based approach: We would try the first round of vaccines—if my son had a reaction, we could plan to space the rest of them out.

Knowing what I know now, I believe the choice not to vaccinate is deeply selfish and anti-science—but I also understand why some people make that call, because I was very nearly one of them. I don’t think any amount of yelling or name-calling is going to dissuade them from their fear. That’s not how fear works. In order to address the reasons why many mothers are afraid of vaccinating their kids, we need to address much larger issues: How women are cared for, spoken to and heard by medical professionals—way before they even have children.

Read more:
Do you let your kids play with unvaccinated friends?
Scared of needles? A parent’s guide to making vaccination shots less painful

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