I was an anti-vaxxer until my own children fell ill

This week, Health Secretary Matt Hancock announced he is seriously looking into legislation that would make vaccinations compulsory.

He will likely face vocal backlash from a loud minority of citizens who have fallen into the anti-vaccine vortex of unreality. I know, because I used to be one of them.

When I first made the decision not to vaccinate my children, I didn’t think my choice had the potential to impact anyone beyond my own household.

I also didn’t consider myself to be ‘against’ the concept of vaccination. I was aware of the suggestion that vaccination can cause autism (this has now been totally discredited) and knew that no medicine was without risk but my choice was still fraught with doubts and second guessing.

In the end I suffered from what I call ‘analysis paralysis’. I chose the route of inaction, of taking on the passive risk of not vaccinating.

The message of the anti-vaxxer movement is wrong but it can be seductive, and anyone who has the slightest doubt can quickly be sucked into these communities.

I started to read online accounts from parents, usually a mother, claiming her child was damaged by vaccines. Other anti-vaxxers offered sympathy and reinforcement and because the child had autism, or another potentially devastating condition, these mothers were beyond reproach. No one dared question their story or asked for evidence.

I was dabbling in what I now see as ‘conspiracy mindedness’. I felt that there were simply too many stories out there of children who were never the same after a round of vaccines.

Even proven science like herd or community immunity – where immuno-compromised people are protected by the immunity of the people around them – is perceived as the stuff of myth for anti-vaxxers, concocted by doctors and Big Pharma to guilt people into vaccinating.

I love my girls fiercely, and only ever want to protect them and do what is best for them.

These stories circulate and spark fear in the hearts of parents like me – parents who only wanted to do the best, and safest, thing for our children. Because while it may sound contrary, my first instinct was to protect my babies.

Eventually, reality corrected my mistaken belief. In the early spring of 2015, all the members of my family, including my three young daughters, contracted rotavirus. Rotavirus is not a garden variety stomach bug – it can cause extreme dehydration and is a leading killer of infants worldwide.

Through some unknown route, we had been in contact with someone who was contagious, and it spread to everyone in our family, including my mother who only babysat for a couple of hours in the days prior to us getting sick.

While I had never been totally secure in my decision not to vaccinate, our experience with rotavirus, plus the Disneyland measles outbreak earlier that winter, convinced me that I had made the wrong decision, and that wrong decision came at the expense of my children.

I love my girls fiercely, and only ever want to protect them and do what is best for them. I felt like I had failed them, and the only way to make it up to them was to make sure they were fully protected from every disease for which there is a vaccine.

The Disneyland outbreak sparked a change in California law regarding vaccination. Prior to that, California, along with most other states, allowed for vaccine exemptions on the basis of religious or philosophical objections – now legislation was passed that eliminated these exemptions. To send your children to school in California, you must vaccinate or provide evidence of a genuine medical reason why your child can’t be vaccinated.

Some people feared that this new law would cause many parents to pull their children out of school. That didn’t happen. Californians are overwhelmingly in favour of recent laws passed to strengthen the state’s oversight, vaccination rates are now up and the current crop of measles outbreaks have largely bypassed California.

Where California led, I believe the UK should follow. While people don’t generally like to be told what to do, when we live in a community we need to have some rules that govern how our choices impact others.

When we choose not to protect our children from disease, that choice reverberates throughout our community. Unprotected children are not only at risk themselves, they can pass diseases to the most vulnerable among us – our infants, our cancer patients, our elderly.

We always need to balance the rights of the individual against the rights of the majority. In the case of vaccines, where the risk of harm is infinitesimally small, and the benefit is enormous, we need to step up and do the right thing.

To yield anything to the voices of anti-vaxxers would be a mistake and clearly, minds can be changed – I am just one example, and there are others like me.

Communities must be protected against disease, even if there is a small minority of people who object. If there had been a law in my state when my children were born, I would have vaccinated despite my doubts. And my children would not have had to suffer from my poor choice.

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