Some parents take the route of least resistance: they don't do any research, dismiss those who have concerns and take their children for vaccinations because the health system tells them to do so. Others research the situation, decide the risks are greater than the benefits and choose not to vaccinate their children, accepting that they may face controversy and have to sign forms (particularly for schools) on a regular basis to confirm that their children are unvaccinated by reasoned choice. Still other parents do their research and decide that despite the fact that there is controversy over the safety of vaccines, despite the fact that there are no easy answers, that they would prefer to vaccinate their children in an effort to prevent serious illnesses rather than take the risk their children may become infected or disabled as a result of the illness rather than because of the vaccine.
Prior to Adam's birth, I did a lot of research. I read websites, books, leaflets, engaged with parents of both opinions in discussion groups online and I had serious concerns about the safety of vaccines. I talked with my husband about it to express these concerns and we didn't see eye-to-eye. He falls into the first group of parents who dismiss the concerns deciding that if the health system says vaccines are safe and beneficial then they are. He also, in agreement with his first wife, vaccinated my stepson George who has not had any form of adverse reaction and also has not contracted any of the illnesses the vaccines are intended to prevent. I asked him to research the situation himself to ensure that whatever decision we jointly came to in relation to our then unborn baby, that it would be an informed one. He chose not to do this research and we argued about this. Right up until the point of Adam's birth, I still did not know whether I would agree to vaccinate him or not but I had made the decision to withhold the routine Vitamin K injection given to all newborn babies in England. I believed that if a baby's body does not include Vitamin K at birth nor for the first eight days of life, that as God is a pretty smart bloke, He had a reason for this. I believed that if Adam was slightly jaundiced that this wasn't a life threatening condition and that it would resolve itself without injections. I also believed that since Vitamin K injections are linked to childhood leukaemia in certain instances, that it was not worth the risk. I know many people may disagree with me on this decision, but my point is that I thought about it, I researched it and I made what I believed was the best decision for my baby at the time.
But then, Adam happened and my whole world was turned upside down. I very quickly realized that everything I thought I knew wasn't necessarily the whole truth and that I still had many things to learn - things the health system can teach me. After Adam was born and became critically ill as a result of a GBS with Meningitis infection; he was taken to Neonatal Intensive Care. My husband later told me that on admission to The Unit he was immediately given a Vitamin K injection because this is required in neonatal. I could have taken issue with the fact that I had withheld consent for this injection and signed the NHS form declaring this. I could have taken issue with the fact that an injection was given to my baby without consulting me. But at that point, I was far more concerned with the fact that the doctors and nurses were battling to save Adam's life - he wasn't even breathing on his own, an injection was the least of my concerns.
While Adam was in hospital and I started learning about GBS, I realized how easily this infection can be prevented - with a simple swab test during pregnancy and antibiotics during labour. I was shocked and horrified that even though many countries in the world (including Canada, the country of my birth) have introduced routine GBS testing as part of anti-natal care, that England and the NHS have chosen not to do so. I was horrified that the NHS have adopted the "risk-based approach" of assuming that, as most children are immune to GBS, it doesn't matter than up to 2/3's of women carry the bacteria and that it is safer to under-medicate than to over-medicate. I also learned that research is ongoing into the development of a vaccine to protect against GBS infections.
And I realized something very important. During those dark days when Adam lay in an incubator in a medically induced coma as his body and the doctors fought his GBS infection, I knew without a shadow of a doubt that if I had then been offered a vaccination to protect against GBS, I would have jumped at it. I would have rolled up my sleeve instantly, without any hesitation whatsoever and without even asking whether or not it was safe, if there had been any hope of healing Adam and stopping the trauma we were going through.
Unfortunately, that offer was never made because a vaccination against GBS does not currently exist; and of course by the time Adam had contracted the infection, a vaccination would have been pointless anyway. But here's the thing: I cannot and never will argue with those parents who have experienced horrific reactions to vaccinations and have watched "the lights go out" as their children descend into autism or even die. I cannot explain this and I will not even attempt to try because there are incredibly strong and emotive opinions on both sides of the argument. But I also cannot argue with those parents (one of whom I watched on the evening news just a couple of months ago) who chose to withhold the MMR vaccination, only for their children to contract measles and nearly die. I do not ultimately know who is right.
But there is one thing I do know. I have been through the trauma of helplessly watching my baby fight a horrific infection. I have sat beside his incubator and not known whether he would live or die. I already live each day with the knowledge that he is categorized as disabled as a direct result of his fight for life. I already live with the knowledge that he may be disabled in other ways that will only present themselves with time. And I also know that if there is anything at all I can do to try to prevent Adam from contracting another killer infection then I will do this because ultimately doing something - anything - is better than sitting helplessly in a hospital second-guessing yourself and wondering: What would have happened if I had known about GBS? What would have happened if, while doing all that research into vaccinations and options surrounding natural childbirth, I had stumbled across the website of Group B Strep Support and learned that private tests are easily and affordably available? What if Chris and I had decided to settle in Canada after our marriage, instead of England, where GBS testing is a routine part of pre-natal care for pregnant women? All of these questions form part of the great "what if" game that is ultimately pointless because I didn't know about GBS so I wasn't tested for it, we do live happily in England and nothing will change what has already happened to us.
There is something else I know. Currently, there is a huge measles outbreak in England. It was believed this disease had been eradicated because of the vaccination programme. Measles, Mumps and Rubella used to be common sights, a common part of childhood. Many thousands of parents endured the trauma of watching their children fight - or die from - these infections. Yet today, they are not commonly seen and while I know not everyone will agree with me, I choose to believe this is in general because of the widespread effort to vaccinate generations of children against these diseases. Now, when outbreaks such as the current one are being seen, many people are surprised because the diseases are no longer a common part of childhood. I am told the reason this outbreak is spreading so rapidly is because we no longer have natural immunity because the disease had nearly been eradicated. I also know that Measles can cause Meningitis and can kill children. And I know that one bought of Meningitis and near death in our family has been more than enough.
So for these reasons, I am choosing to vaccinate Adam. I am not doing so lightly and I will freely confess that each time he has a vaccination appointment, I am terrified. Each time, I spend the evening before the appointment in tears, expressing my fears over the safety of vaccinations to Chris. Last week, I received the appointment slip in the post for Adam's third set of vaccinations and this one includes his first MMR injection. When I read that piece of paper, my heart sank and I was scared. I have spent more than one evening talking to Chris about my fears and I have also spoken to my Health Visitor, Wendy, about those fears. I even begged her to promise me the jab was safe and that Adam would not have a reaction to it. She very wisely told me she cannot make this promise. She has given me all of the information in her possession and she believes that vaccinations are both safe and essential protection against life-threatening illness, but she cannot promise he will not have a reaction. She has however promised to come with me to Adam's appointment on Thursday, to hold my hand and even, if I ask her to do so, to hold Adam while he has his injection. I'm certain she will be mopping up my tears at the same time.
I hope and pray that Adam will not have a reaction. He has not had a reaction to any of the vaccinations he has already received. I hope and pray he will be safe. I understand I am taking a risk in vaccinating him and I pray it is not a risk I come to regret. But I also know that I would be taking an equally big risk to withhold his vaccinations and I know I am not prepared to do this. We have been through too much already to live with the uncertainty of wondering if he will contract another killer disease and so, I choose to vaccinate my son. Please pray for me on Thursday, that no matter whether or not you agree or disagree with my decision, that Adam will be safe.
So what do you think? If you have children, would you (or have you) chosen to vaccinate them? Why or why not? Can you accept the decisions of other parents even if you disagree with them or do you believe there is genuinely a right answer to this question? Please feel free to comment below.