How a Bout of Rotavirus Made Me Appreciate Vaccines

This article was originally published as part of Project Muse From: Narrative Inquiry in Bioethics Volume 6, Number 3, Winter 2016  pp. 161-163 | 10.1353/nib.2016.0073

 

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When my first baby was about 11 months of age, she got rotavirus. There was not a vaccine on the schedule in 2003. She went to play at a city recreation center for toddlers and ended up being part of a large outbreak of this horrible virus, diagnosed by her doctor. She was incredibly sick for 10 days. She reverted to exclusive breastfeeding and refused everything else, including popsicles or Pedialyte. She would only breastfeed, which was comforting for her as well as life saving. She had a very bad case of rotavirus, with diarrhea and vomiting at least 10 times each a day for 10 days. It was pure hell for me as I barely slept for ten days. And I worried non-stop that she would die from dehydration and organ failure.

 

Two weeks later, she got it again. Even though I keep a clean house, in my attempt to keep a healthy house I did not realize I had not actually killed the rotavirus. It can live for ten days on hard surfaces and for weeks on wet surfaces. The healthy, ‘green’ cleaners that smell good do not kill it. Vinegar does not kill it. Bleach kills it but I was not using bleach as I thought it was toxic. And, I had not washed the stuffed animals.

 

When she got it again, it was just as bad as the first time. This time, I also took her to a local naturopath, thinking she might have some ideas about how to help my poor baby. She recommended two things: probiotics and bleach. Probiotic powder on my nipples during nursing eased the tummy troubles. Bleach solution cleaned and killed the virus. I washed and cleaned literally every thing in my house, from Duplos to stuffed animals to the window blinds. Every thing got a wash down with a mild bleach solution, the kind daycare centers use to clean surfaces. Thankfully, I have never experienced another tummy bug with any of my kids ever again. Twelve years later, I still consider this one of the worst experiences of my life. I commiserate with other rotavirus moms since they are the only ones who truly understand the experience.

 

This experience that made me realize how fragile our babies can be. In olden days, the infant mortality rate was very high not only because of sanitation and nutrition issues, but because babies are fragile and can die easily from diseases. Even after we had clean water and good food in the USA, babies still died or suffered greatly from these diseases. I am very thankful for modern medicine.

 

In 2004, I discovered the online world of parenting groups. These groups can help you connect with other people during the day. But, they also bring up a lot of issues for you to stress about which may not be issues with busier moms. Not that busy moms are negligent but stay at home moms have more time to worry about little things that may or may not be important. I have found that only other mothers who have been through having a child with rotavirus understand how awful this experience can be. With chatting online came questions about vaccines. I was a teacher before becoming a mom yet I had never heard of anyone not vaccinating. I was completely unaware, before children, of the extent to the antivax movement.

 

I studied social networking in college years ago, long before online social networking was even a dream. The principles of connecting people together via social groups are very interesting and I really appreciate how amazing it can be to connect with like-minded people from all over the world. When you are parenting alone, because your partner is working and your friends are working and your mom is far away, then online chatting is a real blessing. I have learned a lot from all the chat forums I joined over the years: Mothering, Babycenter, Pregnancy, Diaperswappers, and many others. I learned about and practiced attachment parenting, baby wearing, cloth diapering, co-sleeping, home birth, and making health choices in the home.

 

But nothing prepared me for what I learned about vaccines.

 

The first time I ventured into a vaccination forum, in an online group, was to ask why people discount the science? I asked that most sincerely because, it seemed to me that people were not actually paying attention to what science tells us about vaccines. Little did I know that there are different ideas amongst those who oppose vaccines about what constitutes a risk and what defines risk. I found people who would read the same study as I and see different things in it. For example, a study discussing one very rare reaction, out of millions or billions of vaccines given, could dissuade some from vaccinating even if most people understand the risk is greater with the diseases. For some, a large list of studies showing the aluminum used in vaccines is safe does not counter one study showing it could be dangerous. Cherry picking information is common amongst those opposed to vaccines. I don’t blame them for not understanding cherry picking versus scientific consensus, as most of them have not been taught what it means. Most people opposed to vaccines are sincerely interested in good health. Natural health gurus have misled them.

 

I also found a common argument that vaccines did not really end disease outbreaks and good nutrition and a healthy immune system is all one needs to avoid disease. As a teacher, I approached these discussions like research assignments. I did as much research as I could by reading studies and books. I read all the books I could find, whether for or against vaccines. I got my then-husband in on my research. He is a toxicologist and we looked at the EPA IRIS database and other sources for defining toxicity of ingredients. I consider myself quite open minded and really went into this research assuming I would find out that vaccines are horrible for us. But, quite the opposite, I found the risks associated with vaccines to be extremely miniscule and the ingredients to be not toxic at all at those doses.

 

I assumed I could tell people what I had found, politely, and they would agree with me. I have been doing so for thirteen years and, yet, still there are people who persist in the belief that vaccines cause autism and autoimmune disease and epilepsy and SIDS and a great many other horrible things. Even when I present study after study demonstrating vaccines are far safer than diseases and nutrition doesn’t prevent or cure them, there are still people who won’t agree. And the debate grows more and more contentious as people have gotten caught up in the ideas from the film Vaxxed, which I have seen, and believe in them, despite them all being proven false.

 

It is very frustrating.

 

I wish I could convey to those opposed to vaccines that we all just want children to be healthy. Those of us who advocate for vaccines are parents, adults with autism, adults with injuries from vaccine preventable diseases, researchers, doctors, nurses, and scientists. We aren’t paid to advocate for vaccines. I get accused of that all the time and it makes me very sad. Even if I was paid, which I am not, how would that negate the value of the thousands of safety studies from all over the world, most not conducted by pharmaceutical companies, that demonstrate scientific consensus showing vaccines benefits far outweigh risks?

 

I wish I understood why someone would believe a blog post from a holistic doctor selling an unproven treatment for autism but not a research scientist working for a children’s hospital. I wish I could help people opposed to vaccines understand that most “vaccine injuries” are really not caused by vaccines. I recently read a story of a child diagnosed with a tragic genetic condition that rarely enables the child to live past age two. The parents refused to believe the diagnosis and, instead, called it a vaccine injury. The child’s symptoms worsened, in keeping with the original diagnosis, and then she passed away shortly before age two. The story is tragic but I cannot understand how they can ignore the diagnosis. It doesn’t help anyone to blame vaccines for something that is genetic.

 

For me, too, this decision to vaccinate is about being part of a community. We advocate environmental awareness, in our house, and try to tread gently on earth. We recently switched to having all our sources of energy come from renewable resources. We take the bus often instead of driving a lot. We buy local food so our food’s global footprint is not large. Vaccinating is part of not being a selfish person, in my opinion, and understanding we all breathe the same air. We must take care of each other as well as the environment. I teach my children this lesson, as I want them to understand that the community is important, than the individual’s needs never outweigh the group’s needs.

 

I am not sure how we can bridge the divide between those who vaccinate and those who do not vaccinate. What I can do, however, is help those on the fence about vaccines understand that the rational argument is in favor of vaccines. In my online and local advocacy, I try to always be polite and rational. I hope that helps the science stand out clearly. I was the Washington State CDC Immunization champion for 2015 for my advocacy. When people post articles in which I am quoted or a stolen picture of my award, it is an opportunity to remind them they are proving I am not a paid advocate. To qualify for the award, I had to prove I have no financial ties to the pharmaceutical industry or government. I am proud of my advocacy and have never done anything disrespectful.

 

I have read a great deal about vaccines in the last 13 years, both pro- and anti-vaccine. I fully understand the ingredients, the safety studies, the risks, and the benefits of vaccines. To that end, I have started blogging to share what I have learned.

 

Kathleen Hennessy

2015 CDC Washington State Immunization champion

https://vaccinesworkblog.wordpress.com/

 

 

 

 

 

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3 thoughts on “How a Bout of Rotavirus Made Me Appreciate Vaccines

  1. Pingback: The Truth about vaccines 6: rotavirus | vaccinesworkblog

  2. Yep, been there, done that. My oldest got it just as 1990 started. It was horrible.

    What made it worse was that he refused to drink the pedialyte. So I turned to a “natural baby care” book that recommended diluted apple juice. Well, that made it worse, and he ended up having a seizure. I called 911, and he was taken to the hospital by ambulance.

    Fortunately he did not have to stay. They gave him IV fluids, and found out he also had an ear infection. I was also told that apple juice can cause diarrhea, which is why the BRAT diet for tummy bugs the apples need to be applesauce or actual apple for the pectin. Not the juice.

    So when we got home I took that book and burned it in the fireplace.

    Like

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