By Rimsha Syed
A relatively small – but vocal – community of anti-vaxxers hold a wide array of views, from the theory that vaccines are toxic to the belief that vaccines can cause autism. Although studies have debunked both myths time and time again, some parents remain steadfast in their decision to completely opt-out of vaccines.
Scientific consensus indicates that vaccines save lives and have minimal to rare side effects, yet vaccine hesitancy is a growing concern for the American population. Consequentially, the country is watching the number of measles cases increase, hitting a record of 1,123 cases between 28 states since it was completely eradicated from the US in 2000.
We sat down with Proximity Learning online science teacher, Vita Holguin, to discuss the onset of anti-vax culture and what an unvaccinated community could mean for our future.
Proximity Learning: Can you introduce yourself, talk about your position at Proximity Learning and how you became invested in teaching?
Vita Holguin: I have a Masters in Science Education and a Masters in Exceptional Education. Currently, I am a third-semester Doctoral Student at the University of West Florida. I have been with Proximity Learning for 3 years. I teach high school science. My teaching career started 23 years ago; however, I did not find my teaching niche until I started working with students with learning disabilities. Working with this population nurtured my creative mind while challenging my teaching techniques. I worked with this population of students for 15 years. The experience I gained has shaped and molded me into the teacher I am today.
Proximity Learning: Why do you think many parents are reluctant to vaccinate their kids? Does this speak to the broader perpetuation of anti-vax culture in recent years?
Vita Holguin: While history shows that there have always been those opposed to vaccinations, mostly for religious reasons, the recent anti-vaccination trend was driven by the work of a former British doctor and researcher named Andrew Wakefield. His findings were published in The Lancet. Wakefield reported a connection between the MMR (measles, mumps, and rubella) and the development of autism. Interestingly, The Lancet later retracted Wakefield’s report as it was discovered that he was receiving payments from an anti-vaccination company. In addition, Wakefield’s research methods were reported to be flawed and unethical. This, however, did not halt the trend that emerged from his initial report. This report influenced parents across the UK and the US, resulting in more and more parents opting not to vaccinate their children. Although there have been multiple reports that have demonstrated the falsehood of Wakefield’s initial report, the myth continues to grow.
Proximity Learning: Research indicates that the number of measles cases increases each day, what do you have to say about this and the danger that persists because of it?
Vita Holguin: According to the CDC website, as of April 26, 2019, there have been 704 reported cases of measles since January of this year. This is the largest number of reported cases in a single year since 1994 when 963 cases were reported. In the year 2000, the CDC boasted that measles was eliminated in the US. Despite this claim, measles is back and the anti-vaccination trend is fanning the flames. Unvaccinated individuals carry the risk of acquiring the disease abroad and then bringing it to their hometown. If their hometown is one with many unvaccinated individuals, they can contribute to an outbreak. This speaks to the dangers of not vaccinating your child. Parents that chose this path not only put their child at risk of disease but their entire local community. Measles is a very contagious viral infection with symptoms ranging from fever and rash to encephalitis (inflammation of the brain) and death. Since the beginning of this year, 2019, 9 of the 13 outbreaks were in communities of unvaccinated individuals. The CDC reported that 88% of the reported cases this year were due to unvaccinated individuals. This means that these cases were actually unnecessary and avoidable.
Proximity Learning: Do you agree that parents who don’t vaccinate are prioritizing their children over other people’s children?
Vita Holguin: The CDC website reported that almost 50% of the reported cases this year were with children aged 0-4 years of age. I realize that the parents who are choosing not to vaccinate are doing this out of extreme love for their children. However, they are ignoring the fact that they themselves were most likely vaccinated. Most parents make decisions that focus only on their child and not others. While this is understandable, parents need to reflect on this thought. How would you feel about a parent who knowingly sent their child to school with untreated lice? Would you think, ‘Well it is their decision, I’m okay with my child mingling with their child?’ I think most parents would agree that a child with untreated lice is at risk of spreading the infestation to others. What if the parent refused to treat the lice and insisted on having them attend school with your child? Would you be okay with that? So, while vaccination is a family decision, the choice a parent makes affects everyone in contact with their child. Just as you would not want your child to attend school and play with kids who have untreated lice, can you blame other parents for not wanting their child to be exposed to an unvaccinated child; who could potentially carry measles or any other treatable contagious diseases?
Proximity Learning: As a parent, why did you choose to vaccinate your child with singular doses? and can you explain what that means for the general public?
Vita Holguin: While I personally do not believe that vaccinations contribute to the development of autism, I have decided to vaccinate my child in singular doses or use a delayed vaccination schedule. Some vaccines contain a chemical called Thimerosal, which is a mercury-based preservative. Thimerosal is added to vaccines to prevent the growth of germs, such as bacteria and fungi. According to the CDC, the mercury in Thimersol is ethylmercury, which is quickly eliminated from the body. This is chemically different from methylmercury, which is found in some fish. The mercury in methylmercury can accumulate, or build-up, in the body and become toxic, causing neurological damage. For this reason, the US Federal Guidelines limit the amount of methylmercury in the environment and food supply. Since ethylmercury, is chemically different than methylmercury, it does not accumulate in the body; hence, it is thought to be safe and not cause any type of neurological damage. Interestingly, the CDC reports that the MMR vaccine, the very vaccine that was said to contribute to autism development, has never had Thimerosal. In fact, unbeknownst to me, as of 2001 Thimerosal was removed from all childhood vaccines.
I know that everyone reacts differently to chemicals, so while ethylmercury may be safe for most people, in my opinion, it doesn’t mean it is safe for all people. Hence, I expressed my concern to my pediatrician and then came to the decision to vaccinate my child one vaccine at a time. This meant that after my son received the Hepatitis B (HEP B) vaccination at one day old, we waited two months to start his vaccination series. During that two month period, I kept my son at home and limited the number of visitors. I did not take my son to any location where large numbers of people gathered, such as the mall or religious meetings. At two months of age, he received a HIB vaccination, which builds immunity to a specific type of flu virus (Haemophilus influenzae type b). We waited one month and then he received the DTAP vaccination, which builds immunity to 3 deadly bacteria diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis (whooping cough). After two months he received the second dose of DTAP. After three months he got the first dose of the Polio vaccination. According to the vaccination schedule provided by the CDC, at two months a baby normally receives the HEP B, HIB, DTAP, Polio and two other vaccinations. I personally felt that this was too much at once for my child. Hence, my child received the recommended vaccinations over a span of 6 months.
Proximity Learning: Do you see the possibility of persuading vaccine-refusing parents by appealing to their sense of community responsibility?
Vita Holguin: As a parent, I think it is important that the decision we make for our children should be based on facts and not on a trend. According to CNN Health, cases of autism continue to rise in California although Thimerosal was removed from childhood vaccines. If there was a true correlation, wouldn’t the number of autism cases decrease? While parents should be concerned about the effects their unvaccinated child will have on society, I don’t think that is the way to persuade them. I think parents need to understand the individualized nature of this matter. For instance, peanut butter can cause anaphylactic reactions in some children. An anaphylactic reaction is a whole body, life-threatening allergic response to something, such as peanuts. So should parents reason that because children can have this type of reaction they should not allow their child to eat peanuts? Of course not. A parent does not know how their child will react until it is introduced. So, as my pediatrician recommended, parents should introduce peanuts to the child slowly. Therefore, I occasionally, for about two years, put a small amount of peanut butter on my son’s leg. This was recommended by my doctor as a way to determine how his body would react. In my opinion, vaccinations are similar in that different people may react differently to it. While the majority of the population is not allergic to peanuts, likewise, the majority of the population will not have an adverse reaction to vaccinations.
I think these parents need to look at the bigger picture. All the deadly diseases these vaccinations can prevent still exist. You can’t see them. So how do you plan to protect your child from them? If these parents win and they have the right to send their child to school unvaccinated, what is their alternative plan? What do you plan to do to prevent your child from getting measles, polio, and hepatitis B, just to mention a few? Some people feel that the only true immunity comes from natural exposure. So, this line of reasoning means that you should need to let my child be exposed to polio to protect them from polio. You should allow your child to get measles to protect them from measles. What about the damage these diseases can cause when your child is infected? What about the fact that your child may die from these preventable diseases? Are you really willing to take that risk?
Proximity Learning: Can you talk about the project you assigned your students and what you think it taught them about vaccinations?
Vita Holguin: My biology students had an opportunity to learn about various viruses. Students worked on a week-long project in groups of 3-4. Students chose a virus to investigate and they had to answer a series of questions, one of which was whether or not there was a vaccine for that virus. Through the project, students learned about the symptoms of various viruses and ways to protect themselves from infection. Where applicable, vaccinations were presented as a way to protect themselves from infection.
Proximity Learning: What is your reaction to this article: Even with measles outbreaks across the US, at least 20 states have proposed anti-vaccination bills?
Vita Holguin: This article discusses the increasing number of legislative anti-vaccination bills that are being proposed across the country. This is in direct response to the anti-vaccination trend. I was very happy to read that although the number of proposed bills are increasing, as of now, none of them have become law. The article mentioned that these proposals have not passed because of the greater concern for public health. I am, however, deeply concerned about the fact that these bills continue to be proposed. With enough time, enough pushing and enough money, I fear that eventually it will be passed. Once it is passed in one state, the precedent will be set for more and more states to pass laws that will make it easier to exempt children from being vaccinated. I think it is very disturbing that this is occurring despite the overwhelming evidence in support of vaccination. As more and more parents refuse to vaccinate their children, the cases of autism and measles continue to rise. As the CDC representative stated in the video, vaccinations are completely safe for healthy children. If a parent is concerned about their child’s reaction to vaccination, they need to talk to their pediatrician and not just do research online. I think as a parent, we need to look at the greater good. Measles outbreaks are only the beginning. What other outbreaks are yet to come? Polio? Remember, microorganisms are everywhere, all the time. Viruses and bacteria are on everything we touch and in the air we breathe. How will parents of unvaccinated children protect them from something microscopic? What is their alternative plan?
Rimsha Syed is an Austin-based Pakistani Muslim daughter of fierce immigrants. In Urdu, her name means a bouquet of flowers. Rimsha is a freelance journalist, community organizer, and creative who hopes to disrupt imperial influenced media and re-write history from the perspective of all those oppressed by systems of power meant to exploit working-class people of color globally. She graduated from the University of Texas at Austin in 2019 where she studied journalism and women and gender studies. You can read more of her work here.