The problematic privilege of being anti-vaccine

This is not a post about being pro-vaccine, or anti-vaccine. This is a post about recognizing the inherent privilege in getting to choose such a stance.

Next week, I’m partnering with a campaign to give vaccines to children who are at risk of preventable diseases. I’m going to write a post for them here, and then they are going to give a vaccine to a child for each comment on that post, so stay tuned. But I wanted to write a little pre-amble to articulate my thoughts on the vaccine debate, and also to hopefully address any anti-vaccination sentiment in advance. I’ve been disappointed to see some anti-vaccination activists trying to criticize this concerted effort at getting vulnerable kids some life-saving vaccinations, so I thought I would address it beforehand.

I think it’s easy for those of us who live in the US to lose sight of the very serious risk that diseases like polio and the measles pose for kids living in vulnerable places. Most of these diseases have been eradicated in our country. Few of us have friends or family who have been personally affected. Vaccines in the US can seem like an arcane practice for an intangible danger, and fears about harmful side-effects about vaccines drive some parents to avoid them for their own children. I get that.

Long before I had kids, and before the vaccine debates were even a blip on my radar, I was confronted with the inherent privilege of opting out of vaccines. I was the leader of our church’s global outreach to Africa, which meant that I interviewed and trained groups of teams who would go to Zimbabwe and South Africa to serve with our local partners. A part of preparing our teams was helping to make sure they got all of the travel vaccinations necessary for the area we would be visiting.  One year, a member of a team traveling to Zimbabwe through a curve-ball my way when she announced that she wouldn’t be getting vaccinated because she “doesn’t believe in vaccines.”  She had never been vaccinated as a child and felt strongly that she wanted to avoid putting toxins in her body. This became an issue for me as a leader. While I wanted to respect her decision, I also felt that our church could not be responsible for her becoming “patient zero” for an outbreak of measles or yellow fever in the US. Her refusal to be vaccinated made her a liability for other American kids who are not vaccinated if she traveled to areas where these illnesses are a real threat. Ultimately, we felt that she was putting others at risk by refusing to be vaccinated while traveling to risky areas. We told her the vaccines were required, and she chose not to go.

For me, this illustrated where the debate against vaccinating breaks down. The reason we get to “not believe in vaccines” today is because we have eradicated many of these crippling and life-threatening diseased in our country. Here’s the kicker: WE HAVE VACCINES TO THANK FOR THAT. It is estimated that before vaccines and antibiotics more than 70% of children died before the age of five. What an incredible privilege to raise our children in a time and place when these numbers are a shocking, far-off statistic rather than the norm.

But to assume that this comfort from threat of disease we live in here is a comfort afforded to all human beings is myopic at best, and selfish and uncaring at worst. It reminds me of Marie Antoinette, when asked what the peasant should eat, saying “Let them eat cake.”

This is not a post about being pro-vaccine, or anti-vaccine. This is a post about recognizing the inherent privilege in getting to choose such a stance. (photo source)

I understand the concerns about vaccines. I opted out of some of the newborn vaccines in the hospital.  I put my kids on a modified vaccine schedule so that they were more spread out. I waited until they were older for vaccines that gave me pause. I asked for mercury-free vaccines when it was an option.  I feel good about those choices. But I also feel good about the fact that, when I took my kids out of the country, I made sure they were vaccinated against any potential health threats . . . not just for themselves, but for the children they might come in contact with. I feel good about the fact that when they were old enough to go to school, they were fully vaccinated so that they were a part of the “herd immunity” that protects children with compromised immune systems who cannot get vaccinated themselves.  I feel like I made good decisions for my own kids, but also decisions that were good for the world at large. I want my kids to be global citizens, and a part of that means vaccinating them so that they aren’t putting other kids at risk. Because polio isn’t some made-up boogeyman. And no child should have to live with a preventable disease. Or die from one.

As I mentioned, next week I’m going to give you the opportunity to provide a life-saving vaccination for an at-risk child just by leaving a comment. No money, no commitment, just a comment. But in the meantime, check out the posts from some of my fellow bloggers and leave a comment.


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