How I Changed an Anti-Vaxxer's Mind

That anti-vaxxer was my mom.

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Feb 15 2017, 5:34pm

I was born in the last week of 1990 in Plainfield, Vermont, a town where everybody used the same midwife, Judy Luce, and considered chickenpox to be a healthy, natural way to build a child's immune system. The general consensus was that it was fine to go the hospital if you'd been in a car crash, but in terms of disease? Western medicine would probably just make whatever it was worse.

Around that same time, someone in the community passed my mom a copy of A Shot In The Dark by Harris Coulter, a doctor who specialized in homeopathic and alternative medicine. It bounced between junk science that portrayed vaccines as dangerous time-bombs pushed by the government and horrifying anecdotes from parents. It took particular aim at the vaccine for pertussis—the 'P' in the DPT combo shot, which also inoculates against diphtheria and tetanus—which it claimed could cause neurological damage.

"That book was definitely making the rounds," my mom tells me. "It had a serious impact on everybody in Plainfield. It opened with this god-awful scene, a registered nurse talking about her baby dying in her arms after getting vaccinated … everybody in this little town of fairly well-educated people where everybody used echinacea, we were totally ripe for that kind of book."

Coulter's writing raised a number of issues, none of which were based in scientific fact: How come an eight-pound baby receives the same dose as a 160-pound man? How could a back-to-back vaccine schedule designed for doctors' convenience be compatible with immune system development? How was it safe to inject a mercury derivative (Thimerosal, used as a preservative) directly into the bloodstream? And, the million-dollar question: Why did the National Vaccine Injury Compensation program only accept claims for symptoms that developed within days, sometimes hours, of a baby getting vaccinated, when autism isn't usually detectable until at least age two?

This was all pre-internet, and these struck my mother as valid concerns. If you're not a scientist, and can suppress your reflexive good-liberal feeling that vaccines are fine, they might strike you as valid concerns, too. Who could fault a first-time parent on the receiving end of such propaganda for figuring she was better safe than sorry?

My mother, who gave birth to me in a bathroom, no problem, and had all three of her children epidural-free at home, didn't trust the motives of doctors. Or the pharmaceutical companies, or the health insurance industry. Neither did most of the women she knew. Women, the thinking went, had been birthing and raising babies without government intervention for ages, and the sudden Orwellian push for mandated allopathic medicine felt like a campaign to make women doubt their own abilities to mother, thus forcing them to rely on the men who were profiting off the new normal.

When I was around six months old, we moved to Colorado, and a much less rural neighborhood. The pressure to vaccinate was such that my mom took me from doctor to doctor trying to find someone to answer her questions, but the only response she got was judgment. Worried about being reported, she never stayed.

"Your dad and I had always been fearful about being too weird and inviting a visit from social services," she says. "[A Shot In The Dark] presented vaccines as forcibly imposed. Like, the sheriff would come and arrest you and put you in jail if you didn't vaccinate. The fear of government overreach was just so big."

I got something that was like mild chicken pox at age three, but it apparently wasn't enough to inoculate me because I got what was absolutely chickenpox at age six. Mine was the last class at my school to get it as a unit; by the next year, all the kids were vaccinated.

Over the next decade, junk science and misinformation about vaccines spread widely; public pressure to vaccinate compounded accordingly. By the time my youngest sibling got her very own chicken pox in 2005, it was the first case our doctor had ever treated. She actually called in other doctors to take a look; only one person in that Kaiser Permanente building had seen it before. My mom says they made her and my sister leave through the back stairs.

That doctor, Sonya Black, was the first to listen to my mom's concerns without criticizing or dismissing them. And while she clearly wanted her to vaccinate my siblings and me, she never pressured her to, which went a long way toward easing my mom's fears that she was getting kickbacks from the pharmaceutical companies. She has stayed with her ever since. "You guys were one of my only full anti-vax families ever," Black tells me now. "And the only one I saw long-term. It's not common around Denver."

It is, however, common in Boulder, the Colorado destination 45 minutes away that's become shorthand for a certain organic, nature-and-weed-loving arm of the extremely liberal. Black says that when she first came to Colorado in 2001, Boulder County was pulling down the vaccination rates of the entire state. "Most of my anti-vaxxers are not the kind of crazy Trump people; they're really more the holistic people, and so we see it more in homeopathic communities."

When I was a teenager in public school, still with some vestigial hippyish tendencies but increasingly mainstreamed relative to my childhood years, the fact that my mom was an anti-vaxxer seemed out of place, like if your favorite high-school English teacher one day announced the Earth was flat. I somehow lacked the context to grasp where she was coming from, despite the fact that I'd grown up with it.

I did get vaccinated in the end—in 2009, when the private college I was about to attend required me to before I could enroll in the fall. That April I got vaccinated for measles, mumps, and rubella (a combo shot called MMR); in May, for polio; July, polio again, MMR again, hepatitis B, and a blood draw for a titer to prove I'd had chicken pox; December (universities are stricter about some vaccines than others), hepatitis B again plus hepatitis A; then the final hep B in May 2010 and the final hep A that June.

This period was not helpful in relieving my mother of her fear that vaccines are damaging when not spaced out—a straw-man argument widely repeated among conservatives—but her distrust of the system did not override her desire for me to go to college. I'd already had to get an emergency tetanus shot back in 2006 after getting bitten by a dog or somesuch, and they'd thrown in the diphtheria shot along with it. That left only pertussis, about which my mom was still sufficiently freaked, since it had appeared as the star witness in Coulter's book. My school didn't require it, and I now realize I still haven't gotten it.

I was out of the state by then, but in 2010 there was a deadly meningitis outbreak in Colorado universities. Over the next few years, my mom came to the conclusion that the science she had raised me with was not good science. This was the cumulative effect of years of debate with Black, who did it gracefully, and with me, who probably did it snobbishly.

A baby can receive the same dosage as an adult, she learned, because vaccines don't operate by reaching a certain level in your bloodstream, but by training your T and B immune cells to fight infection as they naturally travel around; our immune systems don't care whether we get vaccines spaced out or in succession, since they're always busy anyway; there are different kinds of mercury and not all of them make you sick; and while the required timeframe for compensation varies by condition, studies across the board still show autism rates to be equal among children who receive vaccinations and children who don't.

If you put aside Jill Stein's confusing stance, the image of the Trump-era anti-vaxxer has taken shape as a right-winger who is poorly educated, probably white, and certainly stupid—conspiracy theorists who rant about autism on Facebook, duped in large part due to willful idiocy. Resistance to the fact that intelligent, curious, tolerant people could be susceptible in much the same way is understandable; we always want to distance ourselves from the thing we fear others perceive us to be. My mother is a college-educated woman of color, a vocal feminist who voted for Hillary Clinton with all her heart and does things like read 3,000-page Lyndon Johnson biographies for fun. Propaganda is not always as tidy to spot as we'd like.

There are huge pockets of anti-vaxxers on the far left just as there are on the far right. If you think the federal government is corrupt and are wary of Wall Street and Big Pharma, anti-vax hysteria can wriggle snugly into your worldview no matter whom you voted for. Trump, who recently tapped anti-vaxer Robert F. Kennedy Jr. to lead a new vaccine commission, uses the exact same scare tactics today that Coulter used in 1985.

"You take this little beautiful baby, and you pump—I mean, it looks just like it's meant for a horse, not for a child, and we've had so many instances, people that work for me," Trump said during the second Republican debate. "Just the other day, two years old, two-and-a-half years old, a child, a beautiful child went to have the vaccine, and came back, and a week later got a tremendous fever, got very, very sick, now is autistic."'

For my mom, reason won out, but it took years of gentle prodding from Black. "Your mom had done tons of research," Black says. "It would have been harder if you guys had been my patients when you were babies and not already older, but the way I approached her was that this was a choice she was allowed to make. Many practices are saying they won't take care of you if you won't get vaccinations. My job every time was to say, 'here's what the science says, but I'll still take care of you.'"