Choosing Immunity

Dana* grew up happy, healthy, and except for a bout of chickenpox in elementary school, virus-free. She noticed her friends and classmates with glitter band-aids on their arms every fall, but when she asked her parents why she never got her flu shot, they simply told her that she was healthy, so she didn’t need one.

She didn’t challenge their answer; she never got the flu, so she figured her parents were right. Flu seasons passed and she remained safe from both the scary needles in the doctor’s office and the virus. 

But it wasn’t just the flu shot that Dana wasn’t getting: she had never been vaccinated against anything, not even as a baby. 

“When I was in middle school, I didn’t think about it as that big of an issue,” Dana said. “It never really affected me; I would just listen to what my parents said; my mom believes that if you are healthy enough and are able to fight off the flu or something, then you don’t actually need to get a flu shot. I was like, ‘okay, if that’s what you want, I’m fine with not getting shots.’”

When Dana entered high school and surrounded herself by politically passionate people, she gradually became aware that she was one of the few unvaccinated people in her school. Annual numbers of measles cases in the U.S. began to rise — going from 120 cases in 2017 to 372 cases in 2018 — and she started to educate herself on vaccinations.

The modern anti-vaccination movement started growing in 1998, when British gastroenterologist Andrew Wakefield published a since-withdrawn study linking the M.M.R. (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine to autism. In 2007, actress Jenny McCarthy publicized the movement when she blamed the measles vaccine for her son’s autism, saying that he was diagnosed soon after receiving the M.M.R. vaccine. Theories linking vaccination to autism have continuously been proven incorrect.

Since the rise of the modern anti-vaccination movement, diseases like measles — which had previously been eradicated in the U.S. — have reemerged. With political turmoil erupting in the U.S. and debate over vaccinations rising to the front pages of newspapers, Dana worried about exposure to diseases and stopped sharing her medical background with anyone except for a few close friends.

“I started to realize that people really would look down on people like me who don’t get their shots,” Dana said. “I was scared to come out as someone who was [unvaccinated]. I definitely do feel targeted, and if I were to tell people that, who are really against it, I’d be really scared of what they might say to me.”

She felt safe enough to confide in a few friends, and to her surprise, was accepted with open arms.

“They like to joke around about it,” Dana said. “I’m fine with that most of the time. Other times it’s hard because I don’t think they realize that they’re the ones who don’t have to worry about what people think about them. There are people who really disagree with what my family’s doing — what I’m doing. And so I think that’s just hard sometimes that they might not realize that.”

At some of Dana’s more recent routine check-ups, her pediatrician encouraged her and her family to strongly consider vaccination and whether or not they wanted to risk symptoms of viruses like tetanus, which include painful muscle spasms and even death. When her father heard the pediatrician’s argument, he changed his mind; when Dana was younger and there wasn’t potential for her to get seriously sick, he had agreed with her mother, but the doctor had swayed him.

With her dad on board, she told her mom that she wanted to get vaccinated. Her response was positive, but every time Dana reminded her to get an appointment, it seemed like it fell off of her mom’s radar. Confused, she contemplated whether or not she actually wanted to be vaccinated, or if it was just pressure from her peers and pediatrician. 

“It does seem almost as if the people who do get vaccinated are really putting pressure on me to have to get them done,” Dana said. “That does kind of upset me, because I shouldn’t have to care what people think about me and the decisions I make on that certain subject, but on the other hand, these are really risky diseases.”

Nevertheless, she pursued vaccination and pressured her mom to make an appointment. Though she was excited at the idea of finally being immune to the diseases that she had been scared of for years, she worried about her relationship with her mom.

“[I worry about] what my mom will think of me after I get them done,” Dana said. “I know she’ll support me in any way, but I think maybe the back of her head she’ll be thinking, ‘Why did she have to do it — did she not believe what I said?’”

When her mom makes the appointment, Dana will be vaccinated against meningitis, hepatitis and hopefully tetanus. She wishes that she had been vaccinated as a child, but for her, the end outcome is the same; immunity against harmful diseases will go a long way towards making her feel safer.

“I’m nervous because I’m scared of needles,” Dana said. “But I would feel safer getting them done, so I am looking forward to it.”

*Name has been changed to protect anonymity.