This is a guest blog from Karen Ernst. Karen is the mother of three boys and a military wife. She sometimes teaches English and enjoys advocating for and working with children. She is the co-leader of Voices for Vaccines and one of the founders of the Minnesota Childhood Immunization Coalition.
The preschool class party was one of the last hurrahs for my then five year old. The entire family attended, including our ten-day old newborn, whose only interest was nursing. His lack of other interests turned out to be good fortune because another mother-son duo at the party were contagious with chicken pox and began showing symptoms the day after the party. Had the mother held my newborn or the child played with him, the results could have been fatal for our son.
Having immunized my older child, who played with his contagious friend, I was relieved that no one in our home contracted chicken pox and no one passed it on to our new baby.
While I was angry when the mother revealed that she’d purposely left her son unvaccinated against chicken pox, I felt proud that I had chosen well, I had protected both my children, and I had understood and agreed with what public health officials had proposed: that children need the varicella vaccine. I had both done what I was supposed to, and nothing bad happened. So that’s the end of the story, right?
Obviously, it’s not the end of the story. Unfortunately, this was not the last mother I met who felt that this vaccine or that vaccine or every vaccine was unimportant or unsafe or just plain dumb. People passed their opinions from parent to parent without regard to the facts, and sometimes their opinions endangered my child’s and my community’s health. I wanted parents to feel as responsible to the community my children were growing up in as I did. At first, I wondered why doctors and people working in public health couldn’t get the message through. I wondered if they were really reaching parents or knew how to craft their message. From my standpoint, it felt like they indeed were doing their jobs.
I have always been grateful to those who work to keep our children safe and healthy, and I have long relied on them and their dedication to our communities. So what was the deal with all these vaccine-hesitant parents? I realized, over time, that I was the one not doing my job, that for too long I had been complacent. I had been happy to vaccinate my children and had not worried about the anti-vaccine message broadcast on the news or the mom who was convinced organic foods were all her children needed to prevent disease. I let them have their thing, and I had mine. I could only do my part to protect my children and my community.
The 2011 measles outbreak was a game-changer for me. Children in our community were sickened by measles for no reason other than their parents’ unfounded fears about autism and the lies that connected it to vaccines. I realized that I needed to protect my community against not only measles, but also the lies about autism and vaccines that had circulated for too long from parent-to-parent like its own disease.
Parents can no longer be complacent. It is our job to bring our children in to be immunized, but it is also our job to be sure that the story told about vaccination is truthful. For that reason, I am one of the parents behind Voices for Vaccines. We are working to help parents speak up for immunization by getting the tools they need to advocate for them. In order for our children to live in healthy communities, we must take on our share of the responsibility to make those communities healthy. We must not allow space for misinformation or untruthfulness. It’s time for our voices to be heard. Please join us and work to keep your community and mine safe from vaccine-preventable disease.