Last year, I became a mom. During my pregnancy, I read all the books and all the articles, and my husband and I mentally crafted a framework to use to raise our baby. I would breast-feed. We would use cloth diapers. We would eschew television and electronic devices for her first two years. And we would vaccinate on time, following the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommended immunization schedule.
Of course, I know now that nothing ever goes to plan when it comes to parenting. We tried cloth diapering; that lasted a week. My daughter was never able to breast-feed successfully, so I ended up pumping exclusively and feeding her from bottles. We let her watch TV when she’s feverish and cranky.
But we kept our promise about vaccinations. My husband and I know that vaccines are an easy and essential part of preventive health care that will help keep our baby from contracting serious and even potentially deadly childhood diseases. And even though a severe medical reaction would test our resolve, we continue to ensure our daughter never misses a vaccine.
The day of our daughter’s 6-month-old vaccinations was uneventful. She got her shots in the afternoon, ate a good dinner, had a bottle and went to bed at 6:30 p.m. An hour later, she suddenly cried out with a startling moan we had never heard before.
My husband and I leapt up and bolted for the stairs. He reached into her crib and pulled her out. Her eyes were open, but blank. The color had drained from her face.
As he placed her in my arms, I saw her face was vacant. I knew instantly something was very, very wrong. I screamed for my husband to call 911. He ran out of the nursery as I tried to talk to her, begging her to stay with us. But almost as soon as he left, her breathing stopped. Her eyes rolled back, and her body went limp.
I felt helpless, certain that our baby — my life, my heart — was going to die in my arms.
I put my lips over her tiny mouth and puffed air into her lungs. Suddenly, she came back — her little body fighting back against my breaths into her mouth — only for unconsciousness to wash over her again. Again this happened.
Just as the paramedics arrived, she was back, this time back for good. But she was still in a daze. She was admitted at Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, where she returned to normal after a few hours, but her doctors began to run a battery of tests to try to determine what had caused her to stop breathing.
Our daughter’s pediatrician called us at the hospital within a few hours and recognized the symptoms. Our baby had experienced an incredibly rare side effect from one of her vaccines, called a hypotonic-hyporesponsive episode. This syndrome is so uncommon that there aren’t even agreed-upon statistics about how rare it is. The most comprehensive study on this syndrome was published back in 2000 in the journal Pediatrics; it found that just 38 reported U.S. cases occurred in 1998.
I was exhausted, emotionally drained — and I was angry. Here we were, parents who did everything right for our baby, and the very thing that was supposed to protect her ended up hurting her. Every instinct in me wanted to protect this fragile, tiny person who in just a few short months had become my whole world. Were my husband and I crazy to keep vaccinating her? Are vaccines more dangerous than the dangers they kept away?
While our baby was tethered overnight to monitors and wires to track her brain’s electrical activity, I obsessively scoured the Web for information.
The good news was that hypotonic-hyporesponsive episodes aren’t known to have lasting side effects. It was a random event, not likely to ever happen to our daughter again.
According to the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System, a federal system for self-reporting problems with immunizations, approximately 10 million vaccines per year are given to children younger than 1 year old. Out of the millions of vaccines given each year, only 3,900 serious adverse events are reported by health-care providers or the public to the government database. And not all of these events are in fact linked to vaccines; some adverse reactions can be caused by unrelated illnesses.
Serious reactions do happen — our daughter is a testament to that. It was the most terrifying event of my life. But as I went through the data, I saw firsthand how exceedingly rare it was and how safe our vaccines really are.
Vaccine-preventable childhood illnesses, on the other hand, are very dangerous. Few children die of these diseases today. But before widespread vaccination, outbreaks and deaths were common. Before the rubella vaccine was introduced, a 1964 outbreak infected 12.5 million Americans, killed 2,000 infants and caused 20,000 cases of congenital rubella syndrome.
Leaving my baby unvaccinated would make her vulnerable if she were to be exposed to an outbreak, such as the 2015 measles outbreak that began in Disneyland and spread to multiple states. Epidemiologists blamed dropping vaccination rates for the rapid spread of the disease during the outbreak.
Now the same anti-science, anti-vaccine paranoia that contributed to the measles outbreak has a national platform in not just one, but two prominent political voices. Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump continues to spread irresponsible, disproved myths about vaccinations, while Green Party nominee Jill Stein has been accused of pandering to the anti-vaccine community instead of unequivocally endorsing the well-documented safety of American vaccines.
These statements lend a dangerous sheen of credibility to anti-vaccine myths — one in the form of a major party nominee, the other as a former Harvard Medical School instructor. As a parent, that scares me even more than the possibility of an adverse reaction.
I still have flashbacks to the night our daughter stopped breathing. When I thought we were losing her, I felt powerless. But I can’t imagine the sorrow we would feel if she were to fall seriously ill from a preventable disease. Doing our best to keep our daughter safe is what we pledged to do when we became parents — and that we continue to ensure our daughter is vaccinated is an essential part of keeping that promise.