Do you let your kids play with unvaccinated friends?

Two parents discuss whether or not you should let your little one mingle with children from anti-vax families.

Photo: Miki Sato
Photo: Miki Sato

“Yes”

Kat Armstrong, mom of three

My three guys—who are five, nearly three and 10 months—are all up to date on their vaccinations. This was a no-brainer for my husband and me. We believe in proven scientific research and know that herd immunity and community safety depend on us as participants. We don’t underestimate the importance of immunization and the health and well-being of our family. So you might think we wouldn’t allow our dudes to play with unvaccinated friends. However, you’d be wrong: We definitely let them hang out with kids from anti-vax families.

With our first-born, I was very worried about the health risks all around us, as many new parents are. After swearing up and down that I would absolutely never allow my baby to spend any time with an unvaccinated child, I learned a harsh truth: unknowingly, I’d spent most of my maternity leave with someone who didn’t believe in vaccinating her child. I was floored. Her reasoning was anti-vax light (fear of potential risks of poisoning, but no hardline beliefs that vaccines cause autism or other illnesses). I felt I’d put my baby in unnecessary danger, and that made me very angry. I was also surprised that someone I agreed with on so many other levels had a viewpoint that differed so strongly from mine.

This encounter taught me that unless you hand out questionnaires everywhere you go, you can’t really know if all the kids your family comes in contact with in daily life are up to date on their MMR. (And, frankly, it’s none of your business.)

In Ontario, where we live, it’s legal to send your unvaccinated kids to public school if you have a religious or medical exemption. I can’t control who my kids sit next to in class, so I simply relax and know they are protected and, in turn, help protect others. I also feel it’s important to teach my children about tolerance and respect for others’ choices. There are so many more important things to worry about. If my views on this issue mean my boys can play freely without me hovering and checking out their friends, all the better.

“No” 

Meg Payne, mom of two

Shortly before my first baby was born, I learned that my sister had chosen not to vaccinate her 18-month-old. They live across the country, and we don’t get to see one another often, but we had planned to spend several weeks together with the grandparents in Winnipeg that summer. The anti-vax disclosure abruptly put the brakes on our trip.

After much heartache and discussions with our doctor, my husband and I announced that the kids would not be meeting until our baby received the full slate of first-year vaccines, right up to the 12-month MMR shot. This translated into awkward conversations with our parents over whose stance on vaccines was more valid and which of us had the rights to the guest bedroom—and when. Eventually we managed to work out a schedule that avoided any overlap, but by then my sister and I were barely speaking to each other.

Were we being paranoid? I don’t think so. My husband’s mother is partially deaf, after losing her hearing to childhood measles. Last year, there were measles outbreaks at Disneyland, in Quebec and at a Toronto daycare where our friends send their child. I was following the news closely. If you’re not asking fellow parents, “Did you vaccinate your kids?” before setting up playdates or choosing a daycare, you should be.

In my 20s, I lived in regions of southern Africa where children still die of horrific, largely preventable illnesses. I have trouble reconciling the lengths parents around the world have to go to for basic medical care with the Western hubris of thinking that, after a few evenings of web scrolling, you’re an expert who knows better than decades of medical research. Armed with their “Internet PhDs,” my sister and brother-in-law feel they are qualified to assess vaccine ingredients.

Immunizations are not purely personal: With communicable diseases, one family’s decision affects all of us. And—sorry (not sorry)—if your family is going to opt out of vaccines, it’s my right to opt out of spending time with you.

A version of this article appeared in our June 2016 issue with the headline, “Do you let your kids play with unvaccinated friends?,” p. 96. 

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