Why I Will Advocate For Vaccines Until My Last Breath

I know how privileged I am.

"I know shots hurt for a minute," I once told my three kids at the doctor's office, just before the nurse came in to give them injections. "But that's a heck of a lot better than getting the flu or measles or polio."

"What's polio?" my son asked.


While I didn't delight in wiping away my son's tears and those of his two younger sisters, I always feel privileged to have been in that position, because there are plenty of mothers out there who never even have the option.

My great-grandmother experienced a parent's worse nightmare in 1953 when her youngest child, Marlen, contracted polio during his senior year of high school. Even though he was healthy and strong — a star football player and wrestler — the disease took his life days after he fell ill.

Less than two years after he was buried, Jonas Salk introduced his polio vaccine to the world. 

That vaccine would prove to be the difference between my grandmother losing her little brother in the prime of his life and my children having absolutely no idea what polio is. My kids are pretty ignorant of most infectious diseases, which isn't really that bad. It's a privilege that has not been afforded to mothers throughout most of history.

When I was growing up, I got vaccinated on schedule without incident. It was just something you did, because why wouldn't you? It never occurred to me that people chose not to vaccinate, and even spoke out against it.

Then 1998 happened.

British researcher Andrew Wakefield published a study in The Lancet arguing that an ingredient in the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine caused autism through intestinal inflammation. Despite the fact that the study was incredibly small and much of the medical community instantly questioned it, the media ran with the story and "vaccines cause autism" became a nonstop sound byte that reverberated throughout the world. 

There was only one problem: Wakefield's study was dead wrong.

Though many have tried, no scientist has ever been able to replicate those findings. Even research paid for by anti-vaccination groups has failed to turn up evidence that vaccines cause autism.

There was only one problem: Wakefield's study was dead wrong.

In 2004, it was revealed that Wakefield had a financial interest in having measles, mumps, and rubella vaccines separated, rather than administered together. Researchers are supposed to disclose any financial conflict of interest, something Wakefield failed to do. It was also proven in 2010 that Wakefield willfully falsified his data, which resulted in his paper being retracted by the journal and his medical license being revoked.

By that time, though, it was impossible to take back the rumor that Wakefield's lies had spawned.

My Great-Uncle Marlen, who died of polio before the vaccine was released. How handsome was he?!
My Great-Uncle Marlen, who died of polio before the vaccine was released. How handsome was he?! Lisa Winter / A Plus

I never paid too much attention to anti-vaxxers until I got into science writing. Then I was thrown into the deep end the first time I wrote something positive about vaccines, which resulted in comments calling me a Big Pharma shill, government troll, and even some people asking me, ever so politely, to kill myself. 

(For the record, I have never once received payment from a pharmaceutical company to advocate for vaccines, but if there are any of them out there who want to kick me some money for saying what I say anyway, I wouldn't be opposed to the idea. You know where to find me, GlaxoSmithKline!)

What I quickly realized, however, is that there are different factions of anti-vaxxers, motivated by different reasons. There are definitely those who fearmonger, deliberately spread misinformation, and profit from selling unproven supplements or homeopathy. Their actions are, in my opinion, completely deplorable.

But there are many parents who want badly to do right by their children and are simply overwhelmed by the decision and who don't know the facts, often because of all the charlatans flooding the internet with nonsense. These are the people I try to reach every single time I write about vaccines. I don't believe there's anything wrong with a lack of knowledge, just as long as there's a willingness to learn.

Now, I'm no immunologist. I do, however, have a degree in Genetics, Cell, and Developmental Biology, which taught me what it takes for scientists to design an experiment, see it through, go through the peer review process to get published, and get a drug approved for use in humans. It is remarkably thorough and painstaking, and usually takes years.

It is not "doing research" to merely Google conspiracy sites and write Facebook posts in all caps, as certain anti-vax frauds do.

Since the introduction of the HPV vaccine, infection rates in teens have dropped 64% in 10 years. That is phenomenal.

Unfortunately, because scientists have to be so technical and exact when talking about their work, it can be extremely difficult for the average person to understand, primarily with regard to the ingredients in vaccines and how our bodies responds to them. 

While some vaccine ingredients can sound scary, they are harmless. Formaldehyde is used during the embalming process, which makes it unsettling for some that it is also used in vaccines. However, your body also produces formaldehyde all day, every day as a byproduct of cellular processes. The body is able to get rid of it quickly. Mercury, which is essentially no longer used in vaccines, acts as a preservative and does not cause mercury poisoning.

Those who oppose vaccines point to the complex-sounding names of the ingredients and advocate against "chemicals." That logic doesn't really make sense, though, because everything is a chemical. For instance, vitamin C is officially called ascorbic acid, cream of tartar is potassium bitartrate, and aspirin is acetylsalicylic acid. Criticizing vaccines for having chemicals is absolutely absurd.

It's unfortunate that so much time is wasted on debating these non-issues about vaccines, because I truly believe they are one of the best things that ever happened to humanity.

Young girl in the Democratic Republic of Congo receiving a tetanus vaccine from a UNICEF doctor.
Young girl in the Democratic Republic of Congo receiving a tetanus vaccine from a UNICEF doctor. Valeriya Anufriyeva / Shutterstock.com

While doctors have been working hard to come up with vaccines against many infectious diseases that were once considered a fact of life, there is one shot that children today don't get: smallpox. Doctors and scientists were actually able to eradicate a disease from the planet, thanks to global vaccination efforts. 

Can we just reflect on how amazing that is? Gone. Wiped Out. Nobody is going to die from smallpox again.

Polio, the same virus that killed my great-uncle, is close to being eradicated through vaccines

Since the introduction of the HPV vaccine, infection rates in teens have dropped 64% in 10 years. That is phenomenal.

Around much of the world, access to medical care is limited. Childhood vaccines help alleviate over-burdened health care facilities do not have the resources to treat everyone. 

Now, I won't sit here and say that vaccines are 100% safe, because nothing is. There are extremely rare cases of allergic reactions and even severe reactions. But for the vast majority of people, all that vaccines will do to them is help them live a long, healthy life. 

Choosing not to vaccinate children for reasons other than medical necessity is not a choice that just affects one family. While not everyone dies when they contract a disease for which there is a vaccine, why make a kid suffer through it in the first place? Why risk passing it on to someone who could have serious complications?

In fact, some people can't get vaccinated because of age or severe allergies or a weakened immune system — and it's precisely these vulnerable individuals who we're putting at risk when we don't contain the spread of diseases by vaccinating our kids. 

Despite the vast amount of irrational anger I've had flung my way by anti-vaxxers, I will never stop advocating for vaccines and the science behind them. I know as a lone voice I may never change the world, but I'm damn sure going to try.

I do it to honor the uncle my mother never got to meet. I do it for the parents who lose their infants to whooping cough before they are old enough to be vaccinated. I do it for the children living in poverty around the world who deserve the chance to survive childhood. I do it because there is no reason in the world not to.

The scientific community agrees that vaccines are safe. They are effective. Let's stop having "debates" that aren't founded in reality and get back to supporting those in the labs and clinics who are saving lives.

Cover image: sunthorn viriyapan / Shutterstock.com