1. 13 (blog) years is definitely a long time to be working on a post, but worth it. Great, empathetic look at a contentious issue.

    The only thing that got my cockles (yes, cockles) up was the suggestion that urban hippies are too busy reading Mothering mag and having tea with their midwives to worry about vaccinating. I read (past-tense) Mothering, had a home birth, only drink organic milk and grow our own organic veggies. My kids have never needed antibiotics and I think it’s in part to the natural ways I try to keep their immune system healthy. And we vaccinate.

    Trying to raise children more naturally from birth and not vaccinating are not causational.

    But again, great look, and thank you for presenting stories without feeling the need to crucify those telling them.

    • Thanks, Karen. And that’s a fair criticism. I don’t think using a midwife and trying to raise your kids in a less toxic environment causes anti-vaxxing beliefs. But it does seem like those who do opt out often have natural childbirth in common.

    • I was intrigued that so many people mentioned Mothering magazine as a contributing factor in their decision.

      Like Karen, we’ve made a lot of choices that fall on the natural parenting side of things. I breastfed my kids for around 3 years each, we lean heavily towards organic foods, we avoid products containing known carcinogens, my son has only had antibiotics once and my daughter never has, we’re a “wait and see” family rather than a “rush to the doctor” family. We feel like those choices are better for our health and the environment. But we also vaccinate, fully, on schedule and then some (e.g. travel vaccines).

      • Rebecca Cuneo Keenan

        I would 100% and unequivocally recommend midwifery care for anybody with a low-risk pregnancy. I also try to limit toxins, etc from kids environment. But there does seem to have been an influence rooted in the natural parenting movement that contributed to the decreasing vaccination rates. This doesn’t mean that it’s a direct causal relationship or that most people who use midwives don’t vaccinate.

  2. kittenpie

    I think you’re right on this, though I would also add that one ingredient is having the luxury of not having lived in a time when these diseases were rampant and killing children, so we do see it as something distant and theoretical not a real-world problem, as Laura noted. I’ll admit that part of my very pro-vax stance is because my own dad suffered horribly from polio as a child and still bears some of those scars now, and I know someone else of his generation with major health complications from the same disease, so I adamantly want no part of having my children run that risk.

    I also feel like Amy and Jason talking about thinking healthy = staying healthy are basically equating luck with causation, which has its dangers, just as equating coincidence of autism with vaccines is falsely seeing causation and has its own set of dangers. I *really* hope their luck holds.

    Ultimately, I have my own doubts about some of the vaccines and big pharma and some I think have been pushed through too fast without adequate testing, such as the HPV vaccine that was being pushed on young girls recently having not been as thoroughly studied as most. I want more info on that before my kid gets it, and by now, I think it’s had time to be studied to an adequate extent. But most others that our kids get have had decades of safety and testing behind them, so I truly don’t understand why you wouldn’t use that protection from some pretty horrible stuff.

    Thanks for this quite measured post, though, it’s a refreshing change from the outright hysteria I see some places!

  3. Well done. My eldest daughter was born during the SARS epidemic. That was an experience like no other. We were planning a hospital birth, and hospitals were under strict lock down…because of a contagious disease that we had no treatment for and no vaccine for. Our health care professionals were put at risk. As a new parent we were scared. No visitors allowed, no prenatal classes at the hospital, no postnatal breastfeeding clinic at the hospital. We saw first hand what it is like to give birth to a child in a community dealing with a deadly disease, an untreatable disease. That is what we are up against when we don’t vaccinate. Our second daughter was born at home, with a midwife. We eat organic food, I advocate for outdoor play for children, eco-living for families. We all need to be responsible members of society. Thank you for presenting this open discussion. It isn’t about demonizing people, it’s about attempting to understand one another and open the lines of communication and education…being responsible members of society.

  4. Most people I know who do not vaccinate their children made that choice because of a serious reaction someone in their family (often their first born child) had to a vaccine. Some of them tried several vaccines before realizing that it was the vaccine that was causing the reaction. Sometimes the reaction is serious enough that they fear giving that child or any other child in their family another vaccine. With other medications (or with foods), we would call this an “allergy” and suggest that the family avoid the thing that triggers the dangerous reaction. But with vaccines, the medical community and others in the community continue to suggest that those people should get vaccinated.

  5. Neville Park

    Thanks for this excellent post! Wakefield’s notorious paper did not come out of nowhere. Not only did he try to start up an alternative immunization scheme, he was retained by a lawyer acting for an anti-vaccination campaign that already existed and was looking for evidence that the MMR vaccine was harmful. (See Brian Deer’s exposé for more.)

    I don’t know anything more about the roots of anti-vaccination, but it would be very interesting to look into!

    • Rebecca Cuneo Keenan

      Great point, Neville. Wakefield was already motivated by a distrust of the MMR vaccine, of course. Thanks for pointing that out.

      • Bob

        And even on top of that, according to at least one source (which I might be able to find again), at least 3 of his 12 cited autism cases were never confirmed to have autism… IE…1/4 of his ‘study’ never had what was claimed to have been caused BY HIS STUDY…

  6. Guinevere

    Great discussion.
    I also was a Mothering mom, but I had a couple experiences which made me question the party line from the medical community – my eldest was born around the time RotaShield (the first rotavirus vax) was taken off the market after several babies had intussusception. They introduced several new vaccines around that time, including varicella (which didn’t seem necessary to vax against, to me) and the heptavalent meningitis vax. First, my eldest had a bad reaction to the DTaP – very high fever, not reduced by antipyretics, and inconsolable screaming for 3 days – caused, her Dr confirmed, by a vax reaction. He noted in her chart she should never get another Pertussis booster, since reactions get more severe and she risks dying next time. (She did come down with Pertussis in middle school, and it was bad, but she didn’t die.) Next, my second baby *had* rotavirus – and because I breastfed her, she didn’t even act ill. It’s deadly for many babies – but not healthy breastfeeding babies. However, it made me question vaccination; I had now seen a ‘moderate’ vax reaction (because ‘severe’ reaction = death) and I had seen my other baby have an illness I was supposed to vax against, and she didn’t even act sick. Autism had nothing to do with my questions.
    I am now 100% in favour of vax, and my kids are fully up to date, but I had many valid concerns, and didn’t appreciate being told ‘you just have to follow the vax schedule and do as you’re told’ as if I was being unreasonable.
    Thank you for hosting an intelligent discussion.

  7. Greg

    Hi Rebecca,

    First time reader; thanks for writing this. It’s the type of discussion I’ve been waiting to hear.

    One quick comment re: “How about a free helpline where people can discuss their worries?” Many Ontario health units have a call centre staffed by Public Health Nurses who can answer questions about all sorts of things. Numbers for Toronto and Peel are below.

    Toronto Public Health: 416-338-7600
    Peel Public Health: 905-799-7700

    Maybe not exactly what you had in mind, but helpful nonetheless.


  8. I’m so gld you wrote this. I too get frustrated when I hear (especially from the media) that anti-vaxxers are just doing what they are doing because of the risk of autism. No one I know who argues against vaccines uses autism as a reason. On top of that, I have a couple of friends who went to school for their chosen feild and LEARNED that vaccines are problematic (both are now chiropracters). I wish the media would talk to these people, who truly believe they have science backed reasons for avoiding vaccines instead of the very few crazy sounding Moms who say they’ve done their reseach but really mean that they’ve listened to a few anecdotes.

  9. Jill

    With respect – and, full disclosure, I am a midwife – I think you are conflating two aspects of midwifery care.

    Midwives are experts in using non-pharmacologic methods of pain relief to give people the best chance of having an unmedicated labour. Midwives also hold up informed choice as a central aspect of the way that they provide care.

    The former likely attracts people who, like you say, “reject the over-medicalization of birth”, some of whom – though not all, as some of the comments above point out – may also be suspicious of vaccination schedules, or be considered “fringe” groups.

    The latter, though, I can’t support being a contributing factor to people’s decisions to reject vaccination except when someone already is a member of the above group. Although informed choice is a central tenet of midwifery care in Ontario, I have yet to have a discussion with a client about the use of drugs to stop a dangerous postpartum hemorrhage, or delivery by c-section in the event of a cord prolapse (an emergency in which the umbilical cord is presenting in front of the baby’s head) and have someone choose to reject these interventions. If the choice of whether to agree to childhood vaccines is a no-brainer (and, to be clear, except in extreme cases, I think it is), then offering people informed choice is not the problem.

    It’s unfortunate that your experience of being provided with informed choice felt like being presented two (or three or four) unweighted choices. In most cases, I would say, one of the options usually comes out on top – for the clinician – but informed choice respects and recognises the autonomy of people to make the choice that makes the most sense for them.

    Finally, I think that most physicians would be offended at the suggestion that informed choice is only being provided by midwives (especially for something like vaccinations which are not even in midwives’ scope). That said, my own personal experience of asking my children’s paediatrician about the wisdom of delaying vaccination while exclusively breastfeeding (more out of curiosity, because I knew I would face similar questions from clients as a clinician and I was interested in his interpretation of the scientific evidence) was met with a “Well, I would just hate for one of your babies to die.”

    I completely agree with you that any clinician dismissing people’s concerns about vaccines as silly or using hyperbole to make a point only serves to increase the distrust that some people feel in the medical system and make them more inclined to seek out alternative positions. It comes across as defensive when a reasoned, evidence-based conversation about the risks and benefits of vaccinations seems like the proverbial unicorn.

    • Rebecca Cuneo Keenan

      Thank you for your thoughtful comment, Jill. I certainly had a wonderful experience using midwives for all three of my births and would recommend the experience to anyone. I don’t think midwifery is the problem, per se, but (as you say) does attract people who are suspicious of mainstream medicine overall. I do think midwives in Canada practice good medicine, but are also part of a culture that was susceptible to antivaxxing arguments.

  10. Boyana

    Great article,
    I completely agree as I was thinking the same thing, anti-vaccine campaign is not only coming out of the Autism scare, but in fact comes from a larger discussion and campaign. I would add to what you said that there is a larger community than just people who are into healthy life-style. I would include in this a large contingent of religious communities (not just Amish or Christian Science) who are into this. When I had my first child in 2007 I was given a video by a friend who is a devout Christian of a doctor who gave a series of anti-vaccine lectures. This doctor was herself a devout Christian and framed the argument against vaccines in a pseudo-scientific and religious context. This was a bad combo and what happened is that my friend spread this info to everyone around so that a whole generation of children around her child are unvaccinated. She got all of the forms of school exemption as well. Interestingly enough she never had her children with a midwife, actually had a highly medicated birth with all of her babies! I on the other hand had completely unmedicated births in a hospital first with an OBGYN and then with a midwife. I read a lot of pros and cons about vaccines and ultimately we (in the West) have forgotten how bad it can get, and I strongly believe that this is a reflection of a larger socio-cultural trend (as someone has noted above) towards individualism and liberal ideals of ‘democratic’ societies. This trend towards individualism is what triggers many of these ideas. Unfortunately there is nothing we can do unless there is a larger societal transformation of consciousness. We have forgotten collective responsibility for others because we put the individual on a pedestal. THis of course is not to say that today’s modern medicine is not to blame for some of this. The same goes for the “big pharma.” Both are run as corporate entities, and big phrama without much social responsibility. I am critical of these entities and their warped social roles. But I also have a problem with the kind of I would say religiosity embedded in much of the ‘natural medicine’ language. Again, I agree that we need choices, consent and it is important to have natural medicine, but instead of religiously holding on to its doctrines, it is important to see how the two (mainstream medicine and natural) to work together. Both can become doctrinal. However, overall it is the large socio-cultural trend since the 1990s that privileges individual above all else. Thank you so much for your thoughtful blog!

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