To vaccinate or not; that is the question, and one mother’s quest for the right answer.
There’s a medical form resting on the kitchen table that my son brought home from school yesterday. It’s asking me—his mother—to make the decision to have him vaccinated for H1N1. The form has been there for 24 hours, and if not for the word “URGENT” stamped across the front, it would take on the usual lifecycle of most forms that come into my house: backpack to kitchen table to trashcan; or, if it’s a particularly pressing concern, like the ten page form needing my signature and a note from the doctor, costing ten dollars, and a photocopy of shot records and checkups and probably even blood samples, okaying the fact that my kid had all his shots and won’t be infecting anyone with polio or rubella or any number of odd, extinct diseases, the form would be filled out within a couple weeks’ time and ultimately sent back to school.
I hate forms for two reasons: they’re printed on paper and thus, waste our natural resources, and they’re seldom of any relevance to someone who prides herself on dodging the frenzy of herd mentality that forms tend to confirm. Case in point: the issue regarding your child’s appearance in photographs taken by the school. I suppose with so many men, women and children in the witness protection program the idea of a teacher taking a photo of classmates and posting it on the school’s billboard had become a matter of contention. One person complained about it, didn’t want their child photographed and then another and then another. For weeks everyone was clamoring about schools violating and exploiting their children with one click of a camera. Shortly after, a mandatory form was sent home, requesting the signature of a parent or guardian, to authorize or deny the act of photographing each child.
It’s like that with the weather around here too. One severe weather alert from Action News on a Monday produces a slew of forms regarding school closing numbers, a list of what to include in a disaster preparedness kit and even a barrage of websites, links and contact numbers in case of emergency. The next thing you know there are mile long lines at the grocery store and bottled water is completely out of stock three towns away. And for what; usually two inches of snow that turns to slush by the end of the school day.
But this form in particular is causing me emotional, mental, moral and ethical strife. I simply cannot decide whether to get the vaccination for my kid or not. As a mother I am torn between doing the right thing for my child while avoiding doing something just because everyone else is doing it. In my mind, it should be this easy: if my kid has a one in a million chance of dying from the flu, as well as a one in a million chance of contracting some bizarre neurological disease from the shot, then either route I take seems statistically safe. I shouldn’t be worried. Right? But I am– so much so that I can’t stop weighing the facts, possibly because so many exist.
In typical culturally-savvy, liberal, progressive parent fashion, I did everything I possibly could to weigh the pros and cons. I posted a poll on Facebook. I watched the youtube video of a beautiful cheerleader who got a neurological disorder triggered by a flu vaccination. I listened to an NPR radio interview with some guy from the CDC. I read a “Short History of Vaccine Panic,” along with Amy Wallace’s, “An Epidemic of Fear: How Panicked Parents Skipping Shots Endangers Us All,” followed shortly by Dr. Kim’s Holistic Heath Blog. By accident, I even read some article online debunking vibrational strings and the theory that we are all made out of light until I realized that had little, if anything to do with swine flu. I asked friends, neighbors and family. I even asked my son’s pediatrician. And after all this, I can’t help but wonder how any of us are capable of making a personal, private, parental decision in the face of all this hysteria and abundance of information.
How, in fact, does anyone make a decision about their child’s health, and possibly life, with so many influences circling around? It makes me wonder how much of a threat something is, compared to the media’s propagation of it. And the bitter truth is, when people stop making individual decision and instead, base their actions on the common good of the herd, the best choice isn’t always made. Who remembers the old VHS versus Betamax war? VHS won dominance over Betamax despite being technically inferior. Why? Really good marketing and probably the fact that consumers were impressed with the recording time of VHS. In other words, consumers lost out on a better, cheaper costing product, for the sake of one flimsy feature. Even the sub-prime mortgage crisis and housing bubble is a reflection of herd mentality. Swine flu is no exception.
Frustratingly, when I polled my friends—and most are no dummies—there was a huge gaping divide. Some believed that it’s best to vaccinate and protect. Others believed the side effects of vaccination weren’t worth the risk. As for me—the form was still on the table this morning, heading to the trashcan, until my neighbor called asking me if my kid needed a ride to school. Yes, yes, yes, I said. He always needs a ride to school, or back from school, or to be picked up from soccer, or dropped off at fencing. For whatever reason, he needs to be stuffed into someone’s minivan, along with a gazillion other kids, for the sake of being taken somewhere. Going back to grad school and teaching has left me hugely dependent on “the village” to help me in times of need.
So, among small talk and neighborhood gossip, I asked her if she was getting her kids vaccinated. Heck, why not. I had asked everybody else by this point and nothing had influenced me either way. Seriously, what difference would her answer make? But the moment she uttered a resounding yes, two things occurred. First, I immediately thought, that’s just typical. And second, I thought, I must get my son vaccinated.
I hung up the phone. In a matter of minutes I speedily filled out the form: Name of child, Birth date, Address, Is the child presently sick? Does he or she have any chronic diseases? Has the child ever had a reaction to a seasonal flu vaccine? Has the child ever had a reaction to eggs?
I signed and dated it and stuck it in his backpack; I kissed him goodbye; and I waved, from my doorstep, to the pack of children crammed into the minivan that, along with my son, were being carted off to school.
Herd mentality or not, I am a member of a community. I depend on “the village” and the village depends on me. And sensationalism aside, (and the one in a million chance of getting some bizarre neurological disease from a flu shot), decisions based solely on me and my child cannot be made. We are not islands. We are not loners. We are part of something bigger than us and thus, have a responsibility to stay safe and healthy not just for our sake, but everyone’s.
Am I happy that I am following the herd? Not really. I have always prided myself on being an individual. Do I think the swine flu is so out of control that it could kill us? Nope. Do I think that mass-hysteria is influencing our better judgment? Yes, I do. Do I think that seasonal and swine flu vaccinations are the answer for everyone? No. That’s not what this story is about. It’s not about any of those “facts.” It’s not even about uncovering obscure information or taking polls of the general public or basing my decision on what a pediatrician suggests (because they’re all on the fence too). And it’s certainly not about being swayed by a form sent home in my son’s backpack. But it is about the bigger picture—my bigger picture, and the fact that all I really have to do to make the right decision is believe in it.