Lucky this kid wasn't vaccinated! I live in California, the land of contradictions. This state leans Republican, but is chock-full of woo-woo hippies. It’s known for sun-kissed bikini blondes, but in the part of it where I live, dressing in layers of fleece is essential for survival. And while Californians are known to be health-obsessed, that very obsession has led to a situation that’s killing kids -- and that’s neither a joke or an exaggeration.
It’s a whooping cough epidemic, and so far, nine babies have died from pertussis -- as a result of non-vaccinators and their germy little disease-vectors.
While there’s something charmingly old-school about the name of this affliction (what's next, chills and ague? The grippe?), there’s nothing charming about what it does. Big kids and adults get very sick; but the smallest and most vulnerable cough till they turn purple, and then they die -- as I mentioned nine of them so far.
When my eldest daughter, Penelope, was born 10 weeks early, our pediatrician impressed upon us how vulnerable she was, even after she came home from the NICU. We were strictly forbidden to bring her anywhere for the first 6 weeks she was home, and anyone who was to come into regular contact with her had to have a booster immunization. The one we got as kids fades over time, and the Center for Disease control recommends that we update it every 10 years -- but most definitely, everyone caring for small children should get a fresh vaccination. The baby who died in my pediatrician’s practice got it from her mom.
(Never mind that when my husband’s ex invited herself over to see my newborn, she was hacking up phlegm all over my house. Just never mind that.)
This has been in the forefront of my mind as I tote my newborn Abby on Penelope’s activities. My poor toddler still needs daily activity, and I hated to miss being with her during my maternity leave -- I couldn’t help going to some of the “danger zone” places, like our Rec Center class or the local mall, from time to time. But when I heard of the most recent infant death, I got instantly paranoid and arranged for Abby to have her first vaccination two weeks earlier than scheduled -- at her six-week mark, the earliest she could have it. And I quizzed the nurse about how it’s spread, how to keep her safe, and how vulnerable she might be.
The nurse urged me to be in-your-face and ballsy about asking every parent we came in contact with whether their kid was getting his or her shots. I might get the hairy eyeball from some, but “then you don’t want your kid playing with their kid anyway,” the nurse told me. This is literally a matter of life and death.
What makes this worse is this article in The New York Times. The people responsible for the loss of herd immunity, and therefore at least partly responsible for these deaths, aren’t dirty little immigrants or the grubby, uninsured poor (I'm being ironic here, folks -- making fun of people like the governor of Arizona who would blame them for health problems), or even uneducated folks who just don’t know any better. They’re the rich, the powerful, the elite. I’m more at risk at an elite private school than at the free sing-alongs at the library in the Mission.
When this was debated on my local parenting list, I sent out a scathing screed that annoyed a few people and pleased many, according to the thank-you emails I got in response. I said, in brief, that we were incredibly lucky to have the luxury to court danger for ourselves and our kids. We’re so protected, we’ve forgotten that 50 years ago, kids’ lives were ruined by polio and babies were born severely disabled due to rubella. Yet well-educated people put more stock in the proven-unscientific ranting of a single doctor than in the years and years of progress -- and people not confined to iron lungs -- that we’ve seen with our own eyes.
In case you didn’t notice, I feel strongly about this. I almost lost Penelope when she was born tiny and frail and got horribly sick even in the rarefied air of the NICU. I don’t want to run that risk again, yet I have to because of moms like Danielle Lawson, whose wide idiot-grin I’ve studied, over and over, since it appeared in that Times article. I’ve puzzled over how she could be so willfully ignorant; I went so far as to use my journalistic skills to find her so I could ask her why she wanted my kid dead. (I found her. And I stopped myself.)
We’re invited to a great party next week -- and I don’t know if I’ve got the nerve to go with Abby. It’s at the home of a friend I don’t know that well, who has some seriously crunchy-granola leanings. Is she like me, careful about her health but reasonable about risks? Or is she one of “them"? It’s not as easy to quiz her as I thought it would be.
Is pertussis a concern in your community? How careful are you with your newborn? Where do you stand on the vax debate?
Image via OtisArchives4/Flickr