Vaccine Controversy

Each time Finn has been admitted to the hospital for a procedure (as with his sedated echo a couple weeks ago, and more recently, a second set of tubes being put in his ears), upon admittance we are asked by a nurse a slew of questions which she checks off on a form.  One of the questions is invariably, “Is he up to date on his immunizations?”  My answer is always “No,” at which point I get the questioning look from the nurse who follows up with “Which ones are not up to date?”  “None of them are.  He’s never had any vaccines,” I answer.  More quizzical looks from the nurse.  “Is this by choice?” she asks.  “Yes,” I say.

All of my kids, with the exception of Finn, are vaccinated according to the recommended immunization schedule.  I never questioned it early in my mothering career.  Just like having baby boys circumcised, vaccinating per the recommended schedule was just what you did, end of story.  But as time went on and I had more children and my whole perception of modern mainstream maternity, postpartum, and infant care began to change, I began questioning more and more.  By the time I was pregnant for the third time, I was ready to throw in the towel on medical/hospital-based maternity care and opted for midwifery care and a homebirth instead.  Lo and behold, we found out we were expecting twins, though, so my dreams of a homebirth were postponed until the next time around.  By the time I was pregnant the fourth time, with Lilah, I was going to have a homebirth come Hell or high water, and by then I was really questioning circumcision and vaccines.  We opted to go ahead with most of the recommended vaccines for Lilah, though I refused the rotovirus vaccine, feeling very distrustful of newer vaccines that did not appear to have a proven safety record.  We’ve also never done flu shots on any of our kids.

When I was pregnant the fifth time, we found out we were having a boy and decided, based on lots of reading, talking to other parents, and talking to our pediatrician, not to have our new baby boy circumcised.  I agonized over vaccinations – should we or shouldn’t we?  The skyrocketing autism rates were scaring the crap out of me – despite the fact that our pediatrician and a lot of other people kept saying “There is no link between vaccines and autism.”

Ironically, the deciding factor for us was finding out that Finn has Down syndrome.  Because he has Down syndrome, he (supposedly) already has a “compromised” immune system.  This fact alone seems to spur a lot of parents to definitely go forward with vaccines.  It made me even more gun-shy of getting him immunized.  In my mind, I couldn’t help but remember that my pediatrician has always wanted to delay vaccines if one of my children were sick when they were due for vaccines, exactly because it wasn’t a good idea to put toxins into the bodies of children whose immune systems were compromised by illness.  Seven months after Finn was born, my husband was diagnosed with Stage III colorectal cancer, and throughout his treatment, our kids could not receive live-virus vaccines because Michael’s indirect exposure could prove very dangerous to him while his immune system was compromised by chemo.  That said a lot to me, too.  Vaccines are not entirely benign; they can be dangerous.

Down syndrome also, as I understand it, puts Finn at a higher risk already of developing autism.  I just couldn’t justify taking the risk; if by some chance he sustained a neurological injury because of a vaccine, I don’t know how I would live with that – with something that could be prevented.  So we opted not to have any vaccines administered to him.  Once the decision was made, I felt completely relieved and at peace with it.  I have felt perfectly comfortable with our decision: he’s not in daycare or school, so is not exposed to lots of other children anyway, and his siblings are immunized, so they won’t be bringing home polio or rubella or whatnot.

But all along, people (including our pediatrician) keep saying, “There’s no link between vaccines and autism.”  I’ve never understood how such a sweeping statement can be made with such confidence.  The fact is, nobody knows what does cause autism – so how can anybody say with absolute certainty what does not cause autism?  My, albeit very amateur, guess is that different things cause autism in different children.  For some, it probably is vaccines.  And the scary thing is, there is no way to know which children will be adversely affected and which will not.

The CDC is now – finally – going to conduct a study of a possible link between vaccines and autism:  CDC to Study Vaccines and Autism. I think this is wonderful news.  There is an autism epidemic, and we need some answers.

In all honesty, I still find myself torn to some degree about vaccinations.  Without a doubt, vaccines have saved millions upon millions of lives from diseases that, in the past, almost always ended in death.  Even so, I feel extremely fortunate – as in nothing but a lucky roll of the dice – that none of my kids who have received vaccines have been injured by them.  I have very, very mixed feelings about the Gardasil vaccine that my daughters will be old enough to receive in just a few short years (and I will say that I, personally, am not unfamiliar with HPV and precancerous cell growth caused by it).  Check this out from the Gardasil website:


Anyone who is allergic to the ingredients of GARDASIL, including those severely allergic to yeast, should not receive the vaccine. GARDASIL is not for women who are pregnant.

The side effects include pain, swelling, itching, bruising, and redness at the injection site, headache, fever, nausea, dizziness, vomiting, and fainting. Fainting can happen after getting GARDASIL. Sometimes people who faint can fall and hurt themselves. For this reason, your health care professional may ask you to sit or lie down for 15 minutes after you get GARDASIL. Some people who faint might shake or become stiff. This may require evaluation or treatment by your health care professional.


“Shake or become stiff”?  Hello?!?  That sounds very much like seizures to me.

As an aside, I took our little malti-poo in for her shots a couple months ago.  She was due for everything, so they gave her all of her vaccines in one visit.  For the next 48 hours, she was, well, as sick as a dog – lethargic, vomiting over and over . . . ugh, not pretty.  And that’s a dog.  It really had me thinking about things.

I am also torn about whether or not to begin at least some vaccines for Finn as he gets older and we enroll him in school, where he will be regularly exposed to other children.  Do I assume/hope his immune system is better able to handle vaccines at age three than it was when he was an infant?  It still feels like a huge leap of faith to me, faith that I’m not sure I have.

So, in the end, everyone has to make the decision for their own family.  And I’m not saying that nobody should vaccinate, ever.  I’m just saying that there is clearly a lot more to be explored and studied here, and we parents need to be aware and cautious.

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11 Comments on “Vaccine Controversy”

  1. realanonymousgirl2011
    March 20, 2011 at 10:21 pm #

    That’s a tough one. But I do think the whole vaccines causing autism is like a trigger. A child may not have autism, but may be at higher risk for it and vaccinations may be a trigger that causes it. I’m not an expert and there’s just not enough studies or research that prove the cause of autism. But thank goodness, that they’re finally doing a study and hopefully it will give you piece of mind. As far as the Gardisil, I’ve seen studies on rare occasion have extreme side effects. But a friend of mine is really cautious about STDs and she’s now 28, well because guys can’t really be tested for HPV, she’s had some bad paps and now has contracted a strain of HPV. So something to think about. Good luck!!!

  2. mumofone
    March 21, 2011 at 2:12 am #

    When I first read this post I was initially thinking I would disagree entirely…but then I realised I did agree…sort of 🙂
    In principle I thoroughly support vaccination. Millions of children died or were severely disabled by the effects of measles, diphtheria and polio as examples. Far more than the number of children diagnosed with autism. In fact you can see the effect of vaccination in the dramatic decrease in pneumonia deaths as a result of the introduction of Haemophilus vaccination. Or the fact that as whooping cough vaccines have now found to wear off after 30 years there has been a slight increase in cases amongst babies too young to be immunised. The thing with vaccination is that you get a thing called Herd Immuinity.
    This is the concept that once a certain number of people in the community are vaccinated/immunised then the virus/bacteria is less able to survive as the number of hosts is decreased. Sometimes the bacteria can be wiped out entirely and then only exist in the laboratory (I believe this is the case with small pox and possibly polio). But even if it does exist the number of people immunised is so great that it is difficult for the virus to spread. As a result even people who aren’t immunised are protected because they are less likely to get the virus – not because of their own immunity but because the virus is simply not prevalent enough for them to be exposed.
    As you pointed out, the fact your older children are immunised helps protect Finn by exactly this mechanism.
    But if a large number of people did not vaccinate their children then the Herd Immunity decreases and then we are all at risk.
    When I thought about immunising my child – I certainly thought about the risks vs benefits. But to me the benefits of my child not becoming severely ill or dying and continuing to protect the community as a whole outweighed the much smaller risk of my child being one of the potentially/theoretical children that may or may not suffer a reaction as a result. So I did immunise my child fully.
    One of the problems with vaccination is that it is such an emotive issue. It is hard to cause your child pain even if there is benefit in the long run. It is hard to expose them to a definite risk rather than a theoretical one that they might get the illness. There is much misinformation about vaccination. In fact in Australia recently a major anti-vaccination website was prosecuted for misrepresenting themselves as medical professionals when they weren’t.
    I do not know if there is a link between autism and vaccination (and I believe they think the key culprit is the MMR). With reference to your linked article – my understanding is that so far no studies have found a causal link between vaccination and autism – but that these studies may have been either too small or not properly conducted to have enough statistical power to detect a relationship.
    I am interested that the CDC is supporting the conduction of studies because there will always remain issues with such studies:
    1./ I doubt they will do a randomised controlled trial – all other studies are of lesser quality by nature
    2/. What do we do if there is a causal link – to abandon vaccination will certainly condemn many more children to blindness, disability or death from the illnesses themselves.
    I do agree that there may be environmental factors that influence the increase in autism – exclusive of it simply being more recognised now – and I agree that studies to try and determine these factors are of great benefit. After all it is always the interplay of genetics and environment that mean an illness is acquired. Some examples:
    Children who get Type1 Diabetes must have a genetic predisposition but until they are exposed to the virus that is thought to trigger the illness they do not get diabetes. This is why some children get it age 2 and some not til 22 and I have even seen patients not get it til 42! Sadly we do not know either the gene or environmental stimulus.
    Everyone knows someone who smoked til 109 – but I have anaesthetized patients with smoking related cancers aged 30.
    I personally got Colorectal cancer aged 32 – normally a disease of patients 60 – 70. Genes must play a part but there must have been some environmental exposure that I got 30 years earlier than average.
    I hypothesize that autism follows a similar pattern. Perhaps vaccination is a factor. Perhaps it is not. I welcome studies that may help find the answer though I suspect it will be a long hard road – as with most illnesses – to find a definite cause. It will almost certainly be multifactorial.
    So to me the chance of autism (or pain or fever or any other potential side effect) was much less than the risk of vaccination. So I chose to immunise.
    BUT you have raised 2 particular vaccines in which I am less certain of my arguments.
    1/. Gardisil – I agree that this is relatively new and untested. I would want to thoroughly research this before giving it to my child. Thankfully you do have quite a few years yet to see the outcome before you need to consider it for your girls. The other thing is that HPV while accounting for the majority of cervical cancer does not account for all. In addition having Gardisil does not preclude Pap Smears anyway. Also if you do not have frequent sexual partners your risk of contracting HPV is minimised – and wouldn’t we all wish for our children not to have so many sexual partners or sex as a teenager that we don’t have to worry about this! So while Gardisil may help decrease cervical cancer it can never eliminate it nor obviate the need for Pap Smears – which if had regularly should pick up most cervical cancer at a treatable stage.
    2/. Rotavirus – this is my challenge. While I have no evidence I believe there was a causal link between rotavirus and the chronic colitis my baby suffered from 8 weeks and possibly still has. Ollie became sick with reflux and colitis after his first Rotavirus vaccination and after the second his poos turned to water. Reflux went with an elimination diet on my part but not the colitis. I do think there is a chance Ollie was genetically susceptible and that the rotavirus was the environmental causative agent that caused him to scream every day of his life for months, to not allow him to sleep properly for years and so to cause me intense sleep deprivation, to give my husband post natal depression, to delay my return to work, to delay us having a second child (due to the difficulties above). So would I vaccinate another child – probably not – but also because I would fully breastfeed again and children who are breastfed already have a much decreased risk of rotavirus. Also because rotavirus simply causes diarrhoea with few other sequealae and having a cannula for IVF and a few days in hospital is less of a price to pay than what we endured with Ollie.
    So you can see I sort of agree and sort of disagree! I would defend the right of anyone to not be vaccinated as I would for any health choice. But I would want there to be education and information and not misinformation as is often so easily found on the web these days. In addition it is much easier to find a case of newly diagnosed autism and promote its tragic consequences in the media than it is to find a child blind or dead from measles because of the herd immunity concept I have described above. So it can seem more risky than not simply because of a false sense of prevalence.
    Thankyou for the forum to present my thoughts on this issue 🙂

  3. mumofone
    March 21, 2011 at 2:18 am #

    Some things I forgot to add – it seems from reading your CDC link that perhaps the problem may lie in the number of vaccines given at the same time – this could be very true – sometimes a child is getting 6 different things at once! Perhaps this is the cause and if we only separated them out it may help – I realise this will decrease the chance of people finishing all of them and cause more pain to our children – but if this was found to be the trigger for neurological injury wouldn’t we all do it?
    Also I suspect that people faint with Gardisil because they are teenage girls and it hurts to have an injection and it is a vasovagal faint not a faint due to the medication. If boys got the vaccination then there fainting rate would be even higher (LOL)
    Also out of interest did you check your own status against Rubella, Mumps and Chicken Pox before pregnancy to decrease your risk of having these when pregnant and so cause teratogenic damage in your fetus. I certainly did and I suspect many mothers would 🙂
    I’ll be quite now 🙂

    • Lisa
      March 21, 2011 at 3:28 am #

      You don’t have to be quiet – I value your perspective. i guess my point is that it is not a clear-cut issue. Obviously, doing away with vaccines altogether would be devastating in the long run. I understand the concept of “herd immunity,” and yes, that’s basically what we’ve counted on with regard to Finn. Clearly, if vaccines were done away with (which is never, ever going to happen), herd immunity would disappear and we’d be dealing with devastating results. I just think that the safety of vaccines needs to be looked at – is there a safer schedule? Is there a safer way to manufacture vaccines? Are there harmful ingredients in vaccines that can be eliminated or replaced with less harmful ingredients? Might it be beneficial to delay vaccines? If you yourself suspect a correlation between the rotavirus vaccine and a negative response in Ollie, then it’s not too far a stretch to give weight to the theory that other vaccines are causing other negative responses in other individuals. I think it’s wise to be cautious. And personally, I think it’s irresponsible to write off those of us who choose not to vaccinate as nut jobs (not that you’ve said this, but I’ve heard plenty of other people say this).
      As far as your question about checking my own status against Rubella, Mumps, and Chicken Pox before pregnancy: I had both Chicken Pox and Mumps as a child, so have the immunity to that. I believe they checked my immunity status to Rubella when I got pregnant with Kevin and I was found to be immune.

      • mumofone
        March 21, 2011 at 4:51 am #

        I suppose I do blindly trust that reputable drug companies do manufacture these vaccines in a safe manner with materials that are safe. There are times when it is beneficial to delay vaccination as you have said. I guess one issue that hopefully they will look at is whether it is the cumulative effect of the number of vaccinations that causes neurological injury rather than if they were given individually (which is obviously a time and cost saving exercise!).
        I don’t in any way dismiss a correlation between vaccination and other illnesses such as Autism – although your linked article has stated that this has not yet been found – although equally I may personally have been simply desperately looking for something as the cause of my child’s illness 🙂
        I suppose my point about Rubella, mumps, chicken pox is whether a person would immunise themselves or not in comparison to their decision re: their children.
        And you are most definitely NOT a nutjob. You’re a great person who is willing to share and engage with people on a wide variety of issues – and I appreciate that 🙂

  4. Melissa
    March 21, 2011 at 4:05 am #

    Vaccines are interesting. I’d always planned on doing a delayed schedule, but with Claire, have been extra lax about it. She been sick (RSV) and had OHS. With these stressors on her system I never pushed getting the vaccines ‘on time’. At most I will let the Dr give her 2 vaccines, not shots but vaccines, at a time. I think there is a benefit to the vaccines, but I refuse to let them overwhelm her system.

  5. starrlife
    March 22, 2011 at 12:58 pm #

    Interesting convo. I work in health for any years- psych to be specific and I’ve observed autism to be not caused – in other words- it has been around for a very long time – especially Aspergers, unrecognized. Perhaps degree wise it’s worse? Or perhaps our current society is less tolerant of certain behaviors? Lots of questions but no answers. And I do not believe that a majority of kids with DS have compromised immune systems – I think that is old research and modernly? unsubstantiated. Most that I know are healthy as horses except for the things they are known for – heart, ears, apnea. But not infectious diseases re: to immune system. Vaccines are a personal choice.

  6. Amy
    March 22, 2011 at 4:57 pm #

    I agree with this post. I find it hard to believe the “there is no link” statement…I feel like how do you know? I do delay the MMR until my children are walking talking… until about 3 for this reason. I had a scare with my 5th child…he had the vaccine at 1 (when he had a few words) and a couple of weeks later he stopped talking, stopped making noise…we basically did not hear him talk again until he was 3 1/2. We had him evaluated and felt so much relief when they said he was not autistic but had Verbal Apraxia. Now he is 5 and he is catching up to his peers…although it has been a long road of therapy and sign language and picture boards to help him communicate. The only thing I wonder about in this post…are you sure you will be able to enroll him in school without the vaccinations? I know in NY and NC (the 2 states I have lived in) unless there is a specific religious or medical reason not to have them (and Im not sure if down syndrome would be one) schools will not allow your child into schools without them. I actually was late with a shot for my 6th grade son…and they basically said if I didnt get it by the next day he was kicked out of school until it was done…and it was just a booster in. I wish you the best…and I do agree that if we are well informed about the vaccinations and the risks of getting them vs not…we should have say in what is given. I never get any elective vaccinations nor flu at our house either. Good luck to you!

  7. Keri
    March 26, 2011 at 8:06 pm #

    I’m a scientist who does immunology research. There was a British study in the 1980s that linked vaccines (MMR I believe) to autism. However, that study was later refuted by a better controlled study which linked the preservative (thimersol) used in British MMR vaccines (thimersol has never been approved in the US) that was linked to autism not the MMR vaccine itself. That being said, I do think that the vaccine schedule used in the US is ludicrous. I’ve researched immunology (particularly vaccine design) for 10+ years and I’ve never seen a single well controlled study that showed how effective each vaccine is when 2-3 vaccines are administered at the same time to a pediatric patient. I have, however, seen several studies of the development of the immune system in humans that imply that vaccination before 2 years of age is ineffective (so why do we still do it? My guess is daycare). My personal plan when I have children is to start vaccinating my child after 2 years- but with only 1 vaccine at a time. I plan to wait at least 4 weeks between each vaccine. The only exception to my plan is if I have a premature birth or if my baby has lung issues (common in my family). In that case, I will give the RSV (respiratory syncytial virus) vaccine when it is recommended, because premies and babies with lung issues get very, very ill from RSV.

    As for the Gardasil vaccine, ask yourself this question. If you were told that there was a vaccine that could protect your daughter against getting cancer, would you give it to her? Don’t even consider the STD side of the issue because there is no evidence that HPV is transmitted only through sexual contact. On a side note, I think that everyone, male and female, should be given the gardasil vaccine as males are the hidden reservoirs of HPV. Just because they are asymptomatic carriers doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to prevent infection!

    Oh, and in answer to your question about whether Finn’s immune system could better handle vaccinations now? Yes. Once Finn turned 2, his immune system was developed enough to handle a vaccine. There is no evidence of reduced immune development in people with Downs syndrome unless they also inherited an immune disorder (bubble boy for an extreme case!). I think the tale that DS patients have decreased immunity actually stems from the evidence of frequent ear infections, which isn’t an immune thing at all, but a result of the physical structure of the ear.

    Poor Twinkle! I refuse to give my Great Dane any vaccines not mandated by law (rabies and lyme disease in endemic areas). Dogs get live virus vaccines which should give them immunity for 10-20 years if administered AFTER they turn a year old (immune development thing again). The only exception to that is leptospirosis (a bacteria). However, the lepto vaccine SUCKS (stimulates immunity for less than 6 months and it only covers 3 of the 15 strains of lepto prevalent in the US), so I just flat out refuse it as my dog is just as likely to get lepto with the vaccine as he is without it (and treatment is a round of antibiotics).

    • Lisa
      March 26, 2011 at 9:07 pm #

      Really appreciate this well thought-out response. Good food for thought. Thanks, Keri.


  1. Scarlett’s 4-month Well-Baby Checkup, and Our Pediatrician’s Curious Take on Autism and Vaccines | Life As I Know It - November 7, 2012

    […] a whole song and dance about our reasons for not vaccinating (because I wrote about it a while back here), I’ll just say briefly that, although our five older kids are vaccinated, Finn remains […]

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