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Why The Current, Post-Eradication Measles Outbreak Is So Infuriating

This article is more than 5 years old.

That certain parents refuse to get their kids vaccinated isn't new. But suddenly, it's news. And it's troubling. I'm a big supporter of "crunchy" parenting, but not when it puts other people's children (and mine) at risk. The current measles outbreak has infuriated many parents and medical professionals who, fuming, wonder why we are arguing about a virus that was already eliminated here in the U.S. 15 years ago.

So, here's one such parental rant on the topic by Alicair Peltonen, an administrative assistant at the Harvard School of Public Health and a journalism student at the Harvard Extension School.

By Alicair Peltonen
Guest Contributor

When I was in elementary school, one of my favorite books was called "The Value of Believing In Yourself," by Spencer Johnson, MD. It was part of a children’s book series meant to teach lessons through the life stories of historical figures. The Value of Believing In Yourself was about Louis Pasteur and his quest to develop the rabies vaccine.

That book still stands as my most cherished source for the science of immunity. Even with a bachelor’s degree in biology, a career spent working in scientific and medical research and a current job in the immunology department of a prestigious graduate school, I still picture all viruses as scruffy black blobs with scary pink faces and foaming fangs. And vaccines are the steadfast soldiers in uniform with huge mustaches and bayonets that are sent in to get the bad guys. How on earth could anyone be more scared of the soldiers than the black blobs?

I have kids. I know all about fear. Those first days with my oldest daughter were magic, but it was a dark magic. It came with visions of this tiny creature I was now in charge of falling off my lap as I breast-fed or rolling face-first into a crib bumper. I imagined a hundred ways she could be injured or worse — and I imagined all the ways it would be my fault.

I went straight to my local Isis Maternity (a wonderful organization that no longer exists) and signed up for new mommy classes. Those classes were an education for me, not in what to do as a new parent, but what not to do. All the women I sat criss-cross applesauce with were lovely, caring, engaged moms who were genuinely searching for the best way to rear happy, healthy child. And every single one of them was irrationally afraid of one thing. And those “things” were all different.

For some it was sleep. “Is she destroying brain cells by crying that hard when she should be sleeping?” For others it was eating. “If I don’t eat peanuts while I’m breastfeeding, will that give him a nut allergy?” No amount of reassurance from the instructor could convince these loving mothers that almost all the drama was manufactured in their own heads; that babies have been crying and barfing and not pooping for a very long time and most of them don’t spontaneously die in the middle of the night.

My own anxiety with my first daughter revolved around...well, anxiety. I inherited some anxiety from my parents and I was obsessed with the notion that I was already passing it on to my child. Even when my therapist scolded me for attributing all my daughter’s traits to me, I was still convinced that her constant nail-biting and fear of fire-alarms were all my doing.

The trick, for me, was to realize that the irrational fear itself isn’t damaging. In fact, it’s normal. To act on it is damaging. If I were to eliminate all the things that I decided were anxiety triggers for my child, she would never try new foods, enter a building with a fire alarm, or take a walk in the woods.

Put simply, the measles vaccine works. I could debate the anti-vaccine movement’s claims that the mercury levels or the formaldehyde levels are dangerous (they’re not) or that vaccinated children have nothing to worry about (they do), but that conversation has become confrontational to the point of irrelevancy.

While I don’t agree with them, I know that many of the vilified anti-vaccine parents are not evil. They are afraid and they are acting on it. The recent Disneyland measles outbreak is a horrifying reminder of how easily fear, much like a virus, can spread and infect an entire culture.

I have kids. I know about fear. I’m not afraid of a medical intervention that, 15 years ago, eradicated a dangerous, often crippling, and sometimes fatal disease in this country. I am, however, increasingly afraid of the type of people who brought that disease to the happiest place on earth.

Parents, what's your take on all this? Please share your thoughts.

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