Thursday, October 22, 2009

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Vaccines

Every parent wants to do what's right for his or her child.

It's a no-brainer. I don't think there's a mom or dad alive who would say otherwise, even those that are neglectful or abusive. Most of us really try to do right by our children. We think if we buy the right brands, read the right books, and stay informed about the myriad of dangers in the world, our kids will grow to be healthier and smarter than all the others.
So when a mom reads an article on a website like Huffington Post or listens to Jenny McCarthy, that protective instinct gets triggered. My god, they think. What if it's true? What if I'm subjecting my child to autism or a neurological disorder just to avoid a few days of sniffles? What kind of mother does that make me?
If the perceived dangers about vaccines were true, it would be our duty as parents to ask questions, to refuse unnecessary vaccinations and to boost our children's immune systems through more "natural" processes. If it were true that vaccines are dangerous.
The problem is, it's not true. The evidence piling up simply doesn't support that the risks of vaccines outweigh the benefits. (No, I won't add citations to prove my claim -- this isn't a science website. If you want citations, visit Science Based Medicine or Respectful Insolence. I often do.)
There's risk in everything. Every time I strap my baby into his car seat I feel an awesome sense of responsibility. It's a big scary world out there and anything can happen. Should I get him out of the car and take him back into the house? No. Because while the world may be scary, he has to learn to live in it. It's my job as a parent to teach him how, and giving into my fears sets the wrong example. The minor risk of a traffic collision is far less than the benefit of taking him to the grocery store so he can see new places and things, and see his mommy reacting calmly to all the lights, noise, and people.
Similarly, the benefits of vaccines outweigh the risks. Things can and do go wrong with vaccines, sometimes leading to health problems more severe than the ones the vaccines were designed to prevent. Rarely. And sometimes people get hit by meteorites hurtling from the sky. Again, rarely. Sometimes bad luck is unavoidable, but things seem to work out okay most of the time. A far more serious risk, in my mind and according to medical opinion, is of a serious, debilitating disease like mumps or polio. I can imagine all too well standing vigil by my son's hospital bed while he struggles for breath, suffering. The very image makes it hard for me to breathe. I want to turn away from the thought, but I won't. Because that horrifying scenario, which can happen, does happen to innocent children every day, is a real fear, one worth acting on. The imaginary fear of vaccine-induced autism, unsupported by any credible evidence, is not.
What it comes down to is trust. Who are the people making these outrageous claims about dangerous vaccines, causing fear and panic, hijacking our mothering instincts to further their political agendas? Are they doctors and scientists? Rarely. More often they are movie stars and talk show hosts. But for some reason, people trust familiar faces and are willing to accept any garbage that comes out of them.
Vaccine rejectionism is based on belief, not fact. There is no evidence strong enough to convince an anti-vaxer that he or she is wrong. It's my duty to teach my son how to distinguish between belief and fact. It's one of the greatest gifts a parent can pass on, right up there with a long life free of preventable disease. Because, like all parents, I want to do what's right for my child.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

The End of My Love Affair with Woo

Before I went through infertility hell, I was a firm believer of woo. I took herbs, I went to a chiropractor, I attempted (and failed repeatedly) to meditate. I believed that humans could consciously manipulate unseen flowing energy to manifest material desires and perfect health. I paid attention to synchronicity and saw patterns in random events. The universe was a benevolent place, there was a plan for my life, and all my adversities were merely life lessons meant to aid me on my spiritual journey.
Then the roof caved in. Nothing I believed, no remedy I tried, could stop my miscarriages from happening. Whatever lesson I was meant to be learning was lost on me. If there was a God, or a Benevolent Universe, He or It was repeatedly killing my offspring before they could even get started becoming people. Who could be cruel enough to do such a thing?
I cast about for answers. I believed I could heal myself and bring forth new life. I just needed to get my chi aligned or my chakras cleared, or ... something. Vitamins, maybe? How about jumping rope to stimulate my ovaries? Acupuncture? Reiki? Exotic fruit?
My insurance didn't cover any of that stuff. It did, however, cover a reproductive endocrinologist (mentioned in a earlier post). I figured, what the hell? I'm desperate enough to try anything. I began working with Dr.K and in the meantime, I did some research on "alternative" fertility treatments. There was a clinic here in Austin whose website caught my attention. Through a combination of acupuncture, herbs, and various other "non-Western" modalities, they practically guaranteed success. It was tempting, believe me, but it was also expensive, way more than we could afford. I considered starting a savings account or trying to hit up family members. But first I wanted some kind of evidence that the stuff worked. I asked Dr.K for advice and he said, very diplomatically, that if I thought it would give me a sense of control and make me feel better, there was probably no harm. But he was careful not to endorse or recommend it.
So I looked into it, starting (of course) with the google search, and branching outward from there. I started reading Junkfood Science, Respectful Insolence, Science-Based Medicine. I started reading the blogs of people who comment on those blogs. I started learning how to interpret evidence, how to find flaws in logic, and how to separate emotion from reason. What I discovered has led me out of the darkness of ignorance and back into the fold of rational, scientific thought.
My miscarriages weren't the result of a misaligned spine or negative energy. They were complex biological events happening at a level completely beyond my ability to control. I didn't need to explore my soul; I needed to get to know my body, in real, concrete ways. I needed to let my doctor find the problem so he could find the solution. Along the way I got a complete overview of my health -- no genetic abnormalities, no blood disorders, no immunological problems, healthy thyroid, clear fallopian tubes, a healthy uterus and beautiful ripe ovaries -- and learned that I am, in fact, a very healthy person. This was in stark contrast to my former beliefs, where every bad mood or period of tiredness heralded a serious malady of body and soul that could only be cured in an obscure, often expensive way.
I put my faith in medical science and my lifelong dream of motherhood was fulfilled. Not because I learned the right lesson and the universe saw fit to reward me, but because with a combination of hormones and surgery, my knowledgeable and attentive doctor was able to compensate for the biological misfire that was keeping me from staying pregnant.
For all of this, I'm a better parent. Not just because of the losses and the greater appreciation they bring, but because I want to teach my child to think critically, to not fall for the same nonsense and illusion that I once fell for. I'll do him a huge favor by teaching him how to think like a scientist. I'll raise a thoughtful child who will grow to be a decent human being. And that has been my goal all along.