Ask Surly Elyse: Vax or GTFO

Amy asked me if I could take a break from fighting Delta for a few minutes to answer an Ask Surly Amy submission. I was happy to focus on something other than vaccines for a little while, so I agreed. Except… well… the question is about vaccines. Fortunately, even though I’m happy to take a break, I’m even happier to take this question. But before we get to the question, I want to ask everyone who hasn’t yet gotten involved to get involved with the #FluDelta campaign to get an anti-vaccine group’s PSA off of Delta’s in-flight programming and check out yesterday’s updates on our progress.
Now, on to our question:

I’m pregnant and due in December and I am definitely having
my child vaccinated. The problem is my 5 year old nephew and 2 year
old niece haven’t received a single one. My sister absolutely refuses
to have them vaccinated based on the autism/adjuvent arguments. For
the sake of our relationship I’ve given up trying to inform her based
on actual scientific studies. I only hope that despite the fact they
live in B.C.’s Okanagan Valley that sees a lot of tourists, they
manage to not get sick. My main problem is, I don’t want her children
around my son until he’s had his shots. Do you have any advice on how
I tell her this?

First, congratulations on your pregnancy!

Second, let’s change the question.

I’m pregnant and due in December and I am definitely having my child ride in a rear-facing car seat. The problem is my 5 year old nephew and 2 year old niece are allowed to ride unrestrained in the car. My sister absolutely refuses to have them restrained based on the arguments that if she got into an accident, carseats can become projectiles, killing the kids who are in them and anyone else in the car. For the sake of our relationship I’ve given up trying to inform her based on actual scientific studies. I only hope that despite the fact they live in B.C.’s Okanagan Valley that sees a lot of tourists who are unfamiliar with the local road rules, they manage to not get into a car accident. My main problem is, I don’t want her driving with my son in her car until he’s old enough to put his seatbelt on for himself. Do you have any advice on how I tell her this?

You’re talking about the safety of your child. Anyone else’s feelings about this are irrelevant.

With the measles and whooping cough outbreaks over the last year and a half, a strict “No one is allowed around my child who is not up to date on their vaccines” rule is perfectly reasonable. That goes for adults. That goes for kids. And everyone has to wash their hands before touching the baby. Other people’s concerns for their kids’ safety doesn’t trump your concerns for your own child.

You might also want to consider how long you want to keep that rule in place. Pertussis is a very serious risk. Are you as concerned about, say, measles? I don’t want to suggest that the vaccines that come later on the schedule are less important — because they’re not — but you may want to consider risk of exposure and risk of contraction with the realities of life, the world, and needing your family in your life. Ask yourself if there are any outbreaks happening in the country, and where they are and who is likely to have been exposed and if it’s reasonable that someone in your sister’s community could have traveled to a place where an outbreak is ongoing. And talk to your pediatrician about the risks involved with exposing your infant to unvaccinated children in an area with a high amount of international tourism.

I suggest laying down the law with your sister BEFORE the baby is born. Once the baby is out, there’s a decent chance you’ll be too tired or overwhelmed to argue. If you’re not interested in burning a bridge with your sister (and I’m guessing you aren’t or you wouldn’t be writing), you should find a time and place where you can have this conversation as calmly and as distraction-free as possible. Tell her that you love her and you want her in your life and your child’s life, but that you believe strongly in vaccines and the risks you’d be taking with your too-young-to-vaccinate baby mean that you are forced to keep him away children who are not vaccinated. Explain that you understand that un-vaccinated does not mean “infectious” but the problem is you almost never know who is or isn’t infected with a disease until days or sometimes weeks after they’re contagious. It’s a health risk you’re not willing to take. Let her know you want them to be a part of your son’s life and maybe offer to Skype or FaceTime with them often.

You might want to gently plead with her one last time to reconsider, but if she won’t budge, save your energy for things like waddling around the house and growing your baby’s eyeballs and nervous system.

She will probably be angry. She believes that she is making the right decision for her sons. But that’s not your responsibility. Your job is to protect your little boy. Just keep reminding yourself that vaccines are as important as seatbelts. The chances of you getting into an accident on any given day or any random drive are small, but you can’t know… and you can’t put on your seatbelt after the accident.

When the Hug Me! I’m Vaccinated campaign launched at Dragon*Con last year, my daughter was 3 months old. She had only just had her first round of DTaP and we were in the middle of a pertussis (whooping cough) epidemic. Given the number of people traveling from around the world to be at D*C, I had to make the decision not to attend. I stayed at home with my daughter while volunteers from the Women Thinking Free and Skepchick manned the Hug Me pertussis vaccine clinic. It was hard… Hug Me was just as much my baby as my daughter was. But in the end, the sacrifice was worth it. And now both are thriving.

You are making the right decision. You can’t control every situation where your son may be exposed to something dangerous, but you do your best… and you avoid the threats you can.

Good luck!


Elyse MoFo Anders is the bad ass behind forming the Women Thinking, inc and the superhero who launched the Hug Me! I'm Vaccinated campaign as well as podcaster emeritus, writer, slacktivist extraordinaire, cancer survivor and sometimes runs marathons for charity. You probably think she's awesome so you follow her on twitter.

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  1. My sisters had to go through similar issues with an in-law who never met a pseudo-science she didn’t like who had refused to have her kids vaccinated. It caused conflict, but my sisters did what you suggest, and the seatbelt analogy is a good one. Things went as they would, and there was trouble, but the kids were safer.

  2. Surly Elyse? Did anyone else immediately think of some sort of Voltron-like skepchickal combination superhero? It might make a good T-shirt.

    And yes, very well written. It always amazes me that some people will go out of their way to protect their kids from the most improbable dangers while overlooking some of the most common and easily preventable.

  3. Very well said. Your responsibly is to your child. As a parent I have had to make similar choices, restricting certain people’s access to my children because I felt they were a safety hazard. Your kids come first.

  4. What an excellent and well-reasoned response to a very difficult queation. Great use of analogy too! Thanks, may adopt that into my practice as a public health nurse!

  5. By the way, there was just a public warning yesterday about a measles exposure in Edmonton (I know, not that close to the Okanagan but there’s lots of traffic).

  6. I actually did ask about the vaccine status of any child who was in the vicinity of my son. He had health issues, and really needed herd immunity. I only had one mother get huffy with me. I decided avoiding her and her brood was better for other reasons.

    Oh, and definitely wait until the little one has had his/her first MMR vaccine. This means there will be the best protection for pertussis and Hib.

    There was an outbreak of mumps in BC recently, and some outbreaks of measles occur not far in Washington state (which has just added a line for a medical health provider to sign for a vaccine exemption).

  7. I have heard the claim there has never been a double blind, placebo controlled study of seasonal flu vaccines to demonstrate that they are safe and effective.

    I haven’t researched that to find out if it’s true – I’ve just assumed that it isn’t true, and that some such studies do exist and have been done. Does anyone have any information that can debunk the anti-vax claim that no testing is done?

    1. You mean have we taken groups of people, vaccinated some, fake vaccinated some and left others totally unvaccinated, sequestered them from the public, and intentionally infected them all with the flu?

      No. That’s frowned upon by ethics committees.

    2. Here’s a phase I study (in Brazil) on flu vaccine that was just published:

      Another in children and adults from 2010:

      Or, to go back a bit further, from 1988:

      And one from 1993:

      And 1997:

      So, I’d say the claim that there have been no double-blind, placebo-controlled studies is, well, erroneous.

      In the U.S., since we have approved, safe and effective flu vaccines, doing a double-blind PCT would probably be unethical, at least for seasonal influenza. Some significant difference in the virus (e.g., a novel bird flu or swine flu) could potentially call for a placebo controlled trial, if there were no currently approved safe and effective vaccine that could function as a comparator. (BTW, thanks, Chris, for the link!)

    3. Not since the Nuremberg Code. Human experimentation: just another thing the Nazis ruined for everyone else.

  8. Hmm, I always thought: first six weeks are sacred (minimise risk to mother and child) and vaccines are at the “of course” level of standard. Otherwise up to about 6 months a strict “no ill relatives visiting” policy, including an if I myself have something I’ll wear a mask to see their baby” policy.
    I think the parents have the right to be as careful as they think appropriate in these cases, while *at the same time*, adults should exercise due caution as well (no french-kissing 3 weeks old nephews and nieces).

  9. “And everyone has to wash their hands before touching the baby.”

    …? Seriously? I’ve never heard anyone suggest something so extreme.

  10. I think this was a great response to someone in a very difficult situation. I have the misfortune to work with some women who are VERY vocally anti-vax (and many are into homeopathy *shudder* ). I will occasionally pipe up when they’re all high-fiving each other (literally) over not vaxxing their kids and tell them to look up It’s frustrating to know that these mothers are trying to do what they feel is best for their children, but they can’t be bothered to do some actual research. They have a strong distrust of biomedicine, fall for the vividness fallacy all the time (I heard this story, so it must be true/common), and don’t understand that homeopathy and anti-vax sites aren’t the place to get reliable info.

    I think your response really takes into account the fact that BOTH women are wanting to do what’s best for their children, and warning her to accept that her sister very well may not vax, and will probably react with anger. It’s sad, but sometimes the truth sucks.

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