We’ve posted a lot about anti-vaxxers lately because they’re doing seemingly everything they can to Make Preventable Diseases Great Again. So much so that we’ve received negative feedback about it:
But it’s an important issue because of the potential ramifications for society as a whole.
In general, anti-vaxxers aren’t stupid, and it doesn’t help to call them stupid (same goes for members of any other religion). So what does help then?
Matthew Smith, a high school Calculus teacher, took to Quora to answer the question – “As a former anti-vaxxer, what was the last straw that made you get vaccinated?”
Here’s his full response:
Yup, I’m the guy you’re looking for. The unicorn…or so I’ve been told
First, some background. My father is a non-medical Doctor and has always been, in general, skeptical of the medical community. I was born in the 1970s and my father was of the opinion (I believe he learned it in school, but I suppose I’m not positive) that vaccinations are not necessary. So, yeah, as a kid, I never had shots like the other kids did. It was one of those childhood experiences that I never had to deal with.
Every time I started a new school (nursery, elementary, high school, college), my father would write a letter claiming religious exemption to vaccinations. If the school did anything other than accept the letter, he then wrote a more strongly-worded letter that would directly quote the state law regarding religious exemptions for vaccinations and would suggest that our religious liberties were being threatened by any further inquiry. (By the way, these days, you can find resources online that cite verses and tenets that members from every major religion can use to justify their religious claim. You’re Lutheran and don’t want vaccines? Well, you can use this verse to justify anti-vaxxism.)
Anyway, this was how I was raised and what I was taught. Vaccines were silly and unnecessary and dangerous. I know I did a report about it for health class in high school once. I argued with my whole Freshman English class in college about it and got into heated debates with friends. When romantic relationships got serious and discussions got around to a future with babies, I always made it clear that I would not vaccinate my kids. Naturally, that was a sticking point with a lot of women.
I ended up marrying a medical professional who both wanted kids and knew how I felt about vaccinations. (I’m not actually sure what she was thinking at the time; I should ask her.) We worked on getting pregnant and still hadn’t come to an agreement on vaccinations for our kids. In fact, she finally became pregnant, and we still had not come to a consensus! But, not for lack of trying. We had a baby coming in just a few months and we needed resolution, so we debated it all the time: me coming at it from the alternative medicine perspective and she coming at it from the medical one. She was able to meet all my questions with answers that I couldn’t refute. She had an explanation for all the hard “evidence” that my father had ever used to strengthen his position. (There was nothing unique here; it was all the same stuff you see any time anyone uses science against an anti-vaxxer.) But, it still all just sounded like one set of beliefs against another.
But, there was one question that became the linchpin for me. There was one question that the whole argument hung on:
Why did I never get sick?
I never was vaccinated for mumps, measles, rubella, smallpox, tetanus, etc, etc. So, why did I never get any of those? Well, anti-vaxxers and science each have their own answer to that question. Anti-vaxxers say that I was exposed to those diseases at some point, but my body fought them off. This happens now, they say, because we know more about nutrition and sanitation and so our immune systems are stronger than they were when these diseases were commonplace. Science, on the other hand, answers the question by suggesting the exact opposite, that I was never exposed to any of those diseases because the people around me are vaccinated and, so, they are not carriers of the disease. A disease can’t be spread by people who are immune.
(Here comes the answer to your question.)
Somehow, I learned about (probably, it was from my wife), which can test to see how many antibodies a person has to a particular disease. A lot of antibodies means the person has been exposed to the disease, their body has developed defenses against it, and the person is now immune to it. Few (or no) antibodies means the person has no defense against that disease.
To me, this finally provided a path to resolution. I would get titers done. I would have my blood tested for antibodies to the diseases I was not vaccinated for. The results would prove which set of beliefs was right. If I had the antibodies, then my father was right all along; I had been exposed to smallpox and measles, etc. and my body developed a defense and I didn’t even notice. If I did not have the antibodies, then science was right and the only reason I hadn’t gotten those diseases was because I had been fortunate enough to have not been exposed to them.
I went to the GP that I had previously gone to for poison ivy care or to get a tick tested for Lyme or whatever and told him my background. He was fascinated and eager to order the titers and get the results. He had to send them to different testing companies because none of them did all the tests.
When the titers came back, they were conclusive. I had no antibodies for any of the things I was tested for (with the exception of an insignificantly small number of antibodies for tetanus).
The information was surprisingly unsettling. What this meant was that I was walking around with zero protection from things like mumps and measles. That meant that if I was in the mall and some stranger who happened to have measles happened to walk past me, I could end up with measles. I suddenly felt very at risk. I was vulnerable. Being in public seemed like a dangerous thing. The imaginary armor that my father had convinced me I had been wearing all my life vanished.
I made an appointment to get vaccinated. I was a unicorn there, too. I was told no adults come to get vaccinated for the things I was seeking. The employees and I, together, were researching on the CDC website information on how many treatments were needed over what time intervals, etc. That was an interesting experience.
Anyway, now, I’m all caught up with my vaccinations. Even tetanus (are you?). My kids are all vaccinated on schedule. I shake my head when I see people post anti-vaxxer stuff, but I don’t make fun of them. I fully accept now that anti-vaxxer stuff is all crap, but I humbly remember that I was on their side not too long ago. And, I’ve told some of them this story (though, not my father) and it hasn’t changed anyone’s mind. I think sometimes it’s not enough to hear the right thing; you have to hear the right thing at the right time. For me, I guess, the right time was having a baby coming and being terrified of making the wrong choice.