What did I think was going to happen?

Two weeks ago, I posted a question about vaccines on Facebook. To nobody’s surprise— except, perhaps, my own since I must have been in denial la-la land to post something about vaccines on Facebook and think it could remain civil—it got ugly pretty quickly.

It had been about a month since the Disneyland measles outbreak and the media was on fire with talks about “anti-vaxxers.” Yet, I had never met one (or at least I thought I had never met one. It turns out there was one extremely nearby.)

I wrote this:

“Where are the parents who don’t vaccinate their kids? Please message me. It’s not for an article or even a conversation about it. I’m just super curious who you are since there’s all this buzz and I’ve literally never talked to anyone who told me they don’t vaccinate. But statistically that can’t be accurate, right? Especially since I’ve lived in hippie towns Takoma Park, Md., and Portland, Ore., with kids.”

I’m 32 with two young daughters. My Facebook page is basically a fertility explosion of ultrasound images and newborn announcements. We are the demographic with some of the fiercest opinions about vaccination because we are the ones making the decisions, about our babies, right now.

Ignore the part about it not being for an article; I was assigned to write it up for this blog after the fact. I later asked permission to use everybody’s comments. By saying that it wouldn’t be for publication and that people could message me privately, I was trying to grant these mysterious anti-vaxxers anonymity. The social stigma is largely what fascinated me in the first place.

I am very pro-vaccination based on research I did reporting health and science articles for The Washington Post. I think they’re one of the most terrific medical accomplishments of modern times. I felt grateful for vaccines even when I had to see my infant daughters get up to four shots in one check-up, and even when one of those shots gave my oldest daughter a fever and a rash all over her torso that left both of us miserable for a few days. Because you know what’s worse than that? Real measles. Polio. Pertussis. And about half a dozen other illnesses that I am lucky to not know anything about.

The comments came in a few flavors. There were the people telling me where to find anti-vaxxers. They suggested California, Ashland, Ore., and Ravalli County, Montana. And then the people offering anecdotes about their acquaintances who don’t vaccinate their children. The one I appreciated the most came from a woman who grew up before the measles vaccine was introduced and “the kid across the alley got measles and the complications he faced made him deaf for life.”

And the one that hit me the hardest was from our own nanny, who said that there are “a TON of unvaccinated children running around” a coffee shop in our neighborhood, including the owner’s four young ones.

Even after knowing that, my 1 1/2 year old and I went to a kiddie concert at that coffee shop a few days later. I felt vaguely suspicious of the parents (and children), even though of course there’s no way to tell who is vaccinated or not. My girls have had their shots so it doesn’t worry me to take them there. But since babies can’t get the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) shot until they turn 1 year old, I probably would not go there if I had an infant and that would be disappointing. That’s where I get mad about this, by the way– when I think about vulnerable infants at risk because of somebody else’s misinformed objections.

After someone on my Facebook page finally came forward and said they don’t vaccinate their kids, the comments turned to debunking the link between vaccines and autism, the need for scientific literacy and being a responsible citizen.

Then, someone else came forward as an anti-vaxxer:

My half-sister.

“I’ve heard of tiny babies getting 4 whopping vaccinations in one sitting!!! Super bad! Also tiny babies [sic] bodies aren’t prepared to handle those. I’d be that parent that opts out of vaccines for religious reasons if I had a baby. Just saying. I’ve also read a lot about the link to autism—vaccinating before age 2.”

Gulp. Guess what topic I won’t ever bring up at family birthday parties or the Thanksgiving table.

She is only a hypothetical anti-vaxxer since she doesn’t have any children. I found her opinion frustrating and ill-informed, not to mention awkward, now that we were having this debate in a quasi-public space. Both of my daughters—her nieces—got “4 whopping vaccinations in one sitting,” after all.

Despite my anger, I realized there was only way I could respond: “Agree to disagree.”

Rachel Saslow is a former reporter for The Washington Post who now lives in Oregon with her husband and two vaccinated daughters.

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