Rose Branigin lives in South Carolina with her husband and 9-month-old son.
Just a few years ago, I was opposed to vaccines. I felt that the risks of measles were being exaggerated when periodic outbreaks would occur. I refused to get my tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis booster when my doctor offered it, and I declined the flu shot every year. I particularly regret the decision regarding the flu shot. As a hospital employee at the time, even though I worked in an area where I did not come into contact with patients, if I had caught the flu during that time, I could have spread it, putting others at risk.
The measles outbreak underway in Clark County, Wash., and the cases that have been reported in nine other states this year are a reminder for me of just how far my views have shifted. In previous years when I rejected vaccination, I would have thought that I didn’t have to worry about measles because I lived a healthy lifestyle, or that the news was just being used to scare people into vaccinating unnecessarily. I can’t help but think back to my old beliefs and how much of my reasoning was based on misleading or false information. But my experience is also a reminder that education and compassion can be valuable tools in the fight against anti-vaccination sentiment.
My reasons for being against vaccines stemmed mostly from misunderstanding the ingredients in the vaccines and how they worked. People who tried to persuade me not to vaccinate told me about the many ingredients in vaccines, such as aluminum salts, polysorbate 80 and formaldehyde, but they did not explain the purpose of those ingredients. They advised me to read the vaccine package inserts without giving me an understanding of how to correctly interpret the information. I had also become convinced that many vaccine reactions were overlooked for various reasons and that they occurred much more frequently than documentation on vaccine safety showed.
What changed my mind? It was finding a group of people who were strongly in favor of vaccines and willing to discuss the topic with me. They were able to correct all the misinformation I had heard and respond to my concerns with credible research and other helpful information. They addressed my fears about children’s immune systems being able to handle vaccines, vaccine ingredients, vaccine safety testing and more.
Another hurdle that I had to overcome involved the numerous stories that are claimed to be vaccine injuries, spreading across social media and finding their way into my news feed. I needed to understand why these stories seemed so prevalent. The stories appealed to my emotions and seemed so compelling.
It is true that reactions to vaccines are possible, but serious reactions are rare. I began to learn that many of the stories presented as vaccine injuries have more to the story that is often not revealed in a short Facebook post. I realized that the frightening anecdotes I was seeing, even though they seemed to be everywhere, were no reason to doubt the accuracy and results of reputable studies that show vaccines are safe and effective.
During the time I was opposed to vaccines, I don’t think I would have described my views as tightly held beliefs. Because of this, I was really surprised at the difficulty I faced in changing my views on vaccination. Changing my mind and admitting this change to other people were not easy things to do, and this process took place over several months. I’ve now realized that there are some advantages to starting from the point of doubting vaccines. It allows me to better understand friends who are hesitant to vaccinate, and in finding information about vaccines that alleviated my specific fears, the experience has made me even more convinced now of the benefits of vaccines, both to my family and to my community.
I hope that the current outbreak can be quickly brought under control and that those who have contracted measles will recover quickly and fully. My son, though fully vaccinated for his age, has not yet reached the age when he will receive the vaccine for measles, so he would be at risk if outbreaks were to occur near us.
I’m grateful to the people who helped me protect myself against misinformation and gave me the facts I needed to keep my family safe. But I can’t do it alone. We all need to get our vaccinations, not just for ourselves but also to protect people who truly can’t be vaccinated. We all need to be in this together.