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We Vaccinate Our Kids So Others Don't Have To

Photograph by Twenty20

My three children are all fully vaccinated.

The decision to vaccinate them wasn’t one that my husband and I made without critical examination. Like any major decision affecting our children, we asked questions. We talked to our children’s pediatrician. We consulted well-vetted research. We even explored some of the arguments against vaccines and the current vaccine schedule.

What we found is nothing new: There is ample evidence to support the safety of vaccines. According to extensive research, vaccines do not cause autism, and the "toxic chemicals" included in some vaccines, in the doses we receive them, are not harmful.

We also discovered that the rates of serious complications for some vaccine-preventable diseases are relatively low. Yet despite these low rates, the risks are still frightening. For every 1,000 children who contract measles, one or two will die. For every 300 children who contract pertussis, one will have encephalopathy. For every 300 children who contract haemophilus influenza type B (Hib), 3 to 6 percent will not survive. And so on.

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Yet as scary as these complication rates might still be, and as unpredictable as these complications might be, the odds are in most healthy children’s favor. If any one of my children contracted a vaccine-preventable disease, they’d likely (though not necessarily) make a full or near-full recovery.

But when it comes to vaccine-preventable diseases, it’s not so much my own kids that I’m worried about. It’s other kids—the not-so-healthy-and-vibrant kids—who have cemented my continued decision to vaccinate my kids.

It’s the child whose life-threatening allergic reactions prevent them from receiving a vaccine.

It’s the kid with cancer whose immune system has been depleted by rounds of chemotherapy.

... [V]accines aren’t just a matter of personal choice. They are literally a matter of public health—and of the communal health of the most vulnerable people in society.

It’s the baby who hasn’t yet been vaccinated against pertussis—or any other vaccine-preventable disease.

It’s the children who have all the health odds stacked against them: the ones who are far more likely to suffer the severe complications of these diseases.

I vaccinate my kids for their health and for these other children’s health.

I vaccinate not just in order to contribute to herd immunity but also to ensure that my child is not the one person who contributes to the serious illness or death of another, more vulnerable child.

Sometimes I wonder if the importance of other children gets lost in some pro-vaccine campaigns. The message in many of these campaigns seems to revolve around personal choice: Protect your kids. Save your child. Vaccinate your baby. Vaccines are safe for your baby.

But vaccines aren’t just a matter of personal choice. They are literally a matter of public health—and of the communal health of the most vulnerable people in society.

We say 'yes' to taking on an infinitesimal risk in order to protect those who face massive health risks.

As such, while the decision to vaccinate is indeed a personal decision, the consequences of that decision are not ours alone. When we choose to vaccinate, we choose for the rest of our community. And if we don’t choose to vaccinate, we choose for the rest of the community, too—sometimes to devastating effect.

To be clear, I’m not interested in belittling “anti-vaxxers.” I don’t think that they aren’t concerned about other people’s children, nor do I think that they are fundamentally immoral. Taking that approach to the vaccine-discussion halts productive conversation and understanding.

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In that same vein, I’m also not interested in treating science with some sort of misguided religiosity. Though current vaccines have been researched extensively, there might be potential vaccine harms (or further benefits) of which we are currently unaware. To accept this possibility is to accept the critical foundations of science.

What does interest me, however, is reframing the message, and the moral imperative, associated with vaccines.

Because when we say “yes” to vaccines, we say “yes” to valuing and protecting the most vulnerable in our society.

We say “yes” to taking on an infinitesimal risk in order to protect those who face massive health risks.

We say “yes” to precisely the sort of moral community in which I want my children—and other people's children—to grow and thrive.

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