Thursday, August 23, 2012

Soulemama, and why vaccines aren't a private decision.

So there's this mommyblogger called "Soulemama" - easy enough to find via Google; I'm not going to link to her here - who lives a charmed pastoral life in Maine. She 'unschools' her five kids, grows her own vegetables, sews their clothes, etc. etc. etc. You know the drill.

Recently, following a "pertussis party," all five of her kids came down with whooping cough. WHOOPING COUGH. You know, that incredibly dangerous disease that (in the words of the CDC) causes violent coughing spells so bad that children cannot breathe, leading to pneumonia, seizures, and even brain damage or death? And for which there is a vaccine? But which is making a comeback now, due to people who opt out of vaccines because they feel like they can treat diseases with homeopathy and natural remedies by rubbing garlic on their kids' feet?

ARGH! There's so much wrong with this situation that I don't know where to begin!! So I am going to stick with unpacking just one of the points that made me all ragey.

Soulemama never directly addresses whether or not her kids are vaccinated (I mean, obviously they aren't, because who would vaccinate their kids and then directly expose them to an infectious disease?!? We vaccinate because we want our kids to stay healthy!!), instead sidestepping the issue by saying (in the comments to her post): "if you read my post, never do I say that we did not vaccinate. I think that is entirely beside the point, completely personal, and only leads to finger pointing."

Head: asplode. Because actually? Whether or not you vaccinate your kids is not a completely personal decision. It's a question of PUBLIC HEALTH.

Not everyone can be vaccinated. People who are immuno-compromised, for instance, may not be able to tolerate the vaccine. Children under 2 months of age don't get the vaccine. And (as Soulemama points out, thinking it's a reason not to vaccinate) the vaccine isn't always 100% effective. That's why it's so important that EVERYONE vaccinate - to build the community (or herd) immunity.

If enough people are vaccinated, the spread of a disease becomes sufficiently unlikely that even those who can't be vaccinated, who aren't immune, are protected. But if people start opting out of vaccination... the community isn't immune. And these communicable diseases start making a comeback.

The website Science-Based Medicine has a nice explanation of herd immunity, and what happens when people start opting out, which I'll excerpt briefly:

Published in Pediatrics this month is a paper that looked at the effect of vaccine refusers on laboratory confirmed (PCR or cultures) pertussis in Colorado (13).  They had 158 cases of pertussis  in the Kaiser system between 1996 and 2007.
Infected children were significantly more likely to have parents who refused vaccinations  (11.5%) than the controls (0.5%). The difference translated to a 22.8-fold increased risk of pertussis in the unvaccinated children.
At the time in Colorado, vaccination refusal was less than 1%, but they accounted for 11% of the cases of pertussis.  That’s not surprising.  With a bacterial disease like pertussis, a small slip in the vaccine rate can lead to a big jump in disease.
The vaccine is not 100%.  So there will be cases in vaccinated children as well.  What is striking is ALL the cases in the unvaccinated group could be attributed to not having the vaccine.

So, in short: No, Soulemama, whether or not you vaccinate your kids isn't a "completely personal" decision.  Maintaining community immunity against infectious, deadly diseases requires EVERYONE to vaccinate who can. This protects people whose vaccines didn't take or whose vaccines need a booster; it protects small babies and elderly folks and people who are immuno-compromised. It protects all of us.

So if keeping your own kids safe and healthy isn't enough of a motivation for you to vaccinate them (to which, as a parent, I must say WTF?!?) - fine. But then do it for my kids.


  1. Yes, I was so disappointed to read her post about her entire family coming down with whooping cough, and it is also clear from the language she uses in that post (saying that there may be "a new strain of whooping cough" in Maine - classic non-vax line). Non-vaxers make me rage.

  2. Ugh, me too. I just don't understand how you could put so many people - including your own kids! - at such risk.

  3. Live and let live. Some people don't want to inject poison into their children's bodies, and some people don't want their children to get whooping cough. Do what you believe in, and let others do the same. Instead of getting angry go hug those you love instead. :)

    1. Why don't anti-vas people even read or understand the facts mentioned in a post? You choosing not to vaccinate your child may result in my, vaccinated child dying (or more likely a baby who hasn't even had the vaccine yet). That makes me angry, oddly enough. Hard to hug the ones you love if they've died (as my two-year-old aunt did from measles, in the 1940s, before vaccination).

      It has really made me stop following or admiring Soulemama, not least because she didn't have the courage to say one way or another if they did vaccinate or not (I'm assuming not, since they all had it, but of course can't know for sure). Thanks to Freethinking Mama for making me feel less alone in my eye-rolling at the unscientific decisions made by people like Amanda Soule.

  4. Did you ever read Seth Mnookin's "The Panic Virus?" It's a fantastic (and point-by-point) refutation of the anti-vaccine thing. You can find more about it here:

  5. "Recently, following a "pertussis party," all five of her kids came down with whooping cough." Where on her blog post does she say they had a "pertussis party" to intentionally catch this disease? Here's the post, please tell me what I am missing:

    I am firmly in the pro-vaccinating camp, but it does "our" side a real disservice to spread lies.