I’m baffled. Utterly. Last week, New York City began vaccinating elementary school
children against the H1N1 virus. The vaccine is optional but free; parents need
only provide permission. So, are
parents sending in their permission slips en masse? No. Citywide, according to The
New York Times, less than half of the eligible parents are giving the
schools’ permission to inoculate their children. In at least one school, only five percent of parents opted
This lackluster participation rate corroborates poll results
released this past month by CBS
News/Washington Post, The Associated
Press and Consumer Reports. These studies found significant numbers
of parents planning on foregoing the H1N1 vaccination for their children,
citing concerns about the vaccine’s safety.
Never mind that the risk of serious side effects is
extremely rare while the risk of contracting H1N1 this winter, according to the
Centers for Disease Control, is somewhere between one in 10 to one in four,
depending on a person’s risk factors.
Or, that up to 40% of the U.S. population could be afflicted within two
years without widespread vaccination.
As a mother of three, I certainly understand a parent’s
reluctance to be the first to immunize their child with a new vaccine. With each inoculation, a parent weighs the
benefits of immunization against the risk of his or her child becoming the
statistic: the one that has an adverse reaction or worse, dies. I’ve wrestled with that equation
multiple times – but I’ve always landed on the side of vaccinating my children.
In part, my decision is driven by my own personal medical
history. A full decade after polio
was eradicated in the United States – thanks to widespread immunization of
school children – I contracted polio as a toddler in South Korea, at a time
when the vaccine was not available there.
And, I was not alone. Polio
was so rampant in South Korea in the 1960s that separate orphanages were built just for us children with polio.
And, while my personal history is an enigma for my peers in
America, their parents understand and know it. Before the advent of vaccinations, Americans routinely lost
family members or friends to diseases like polio, rubella, tuberculosis,
measles, mumps and more. My
adoptive parents certainly did: an older sibling died of tuberculosis in the
late 1920s; a cousin died of polio in 1946; a friend’s child was born with
congenital rubella syndrome in 1965.
It’s why older Americans want the H1N1 vaccine. The same week that New York City
officials were trying to convince young parents to inoculate their children,
officials in Los Angeles County and Chicago were urging people over 60 to
forego the vaccine for now; to allow the limited supplies to go to the highest
risk groups first: children, pregnant women, people with compromised immune
But parents born after 1970 don’t know about these diseases
first hand. They have the luxury
of protection and ignorance: they grew up with vaccines and without pandemics. Yet, throughout the developing world –
and in pockets of the U.S. where people are refusing vaccinations – diseases
that can be eradicated through immunization still exist with deadly results:
tuberculosis, measles, rotavirus.
As we enter winter and the flu season, I hope these parents
will reconsider and immunize their children. If they are in doubt, they should ask their parents or
grandparents. After a generation
of experience – not to mention rigorous, scientific longitudinal studies -- we who have first hand knowledge, know an indisputable fact: vaccines save lives.