About 10 years ago I thought vaccines caused autism. I didn’t believe this fallacy with any fervor or passion – in fact, I hadn’t researched it any sense of the word.  It was just something I’d picked up from what I call background noise, the kind of passive media consumption we all tend to do in this super-technical world we live in.

Then I was hospitalized with a vaccine preventable disease  – and I suddenly cared a lot about vaccines, autism and how one person’s decisions can impact a community.

I was in my mid-20s when it happened. I didn’t have any kids or plans for kids in my immediate future, so vaccines and autism were not things at the forefront of my mind. I’d had all my shots as a kid, I got an annual flu shot, but that was about as far as I went when it came to vaccinations.

It was during the height of the H1N1 media hysteria (or the “swine flu,” as it was dubbed, based on its common animal host) when my husband and I attended a party with some friends.  I was 27 and despite the excessive media coverage, catching that virus wasn’t something I was concerned about.  I was young and healthy with no major medical issues.  If I got it, I figured, it would just be a bad flu, and I’d survive. I was above the media hype.

Media hype was rampant during the height of H1N1: Courtesy CNN.com

Media hype was rampant during the height of H1N1: Courtesy CNN.com

Also at that party was a family with elementary school-aged children. The hosts’ dog had recently had a litter of puppies, so the kids, my friends, and I spent much of the evening gathered around the puppies because… puppies!  Midway through the evening one of the kids started to complain of a sore throat, and I didn’t think anything of it at the time because I thought that little kids are always sick, right? The kids’ family stayed at the party for a little while longer, and as it became apparent that all of the kids were slowly getting sick, they left.

For the next 36 hours I thought nothing more of it.

That Monday I went to work and felt fine. But around 10am I noticed my throat was a little sore.  By 10:30am I had a splitting headache.  By 11am I’d developed a cough I couldn’t control.  My boss at the time agreed that I needed to go home, so I got on Metro (I know, as a public health professional this was the worst thing I could have done for the public), and by the time I arrived home a little after noon it hurt to walk or to even think.

Just about three hours after my symptoms began to present themselves, I painfully crawled into bed with a fever of 103, some ginger ale, and downed a few Tylenol, assuming that I’d wake up in a few hours ready to binge watch Judge Judy and eat ice cream. Instead I woke up an hour later and threw up, a lot.  I couldn’t hold anything down, crackers, Gatorade, water, you name it, I either threw it up or it came out the other end.

That night my fever climbed to 105, with muscle aches on par with what I would later experience in labor with my first child.  I was very, very sick, so for the first time ever I went to the hospital for an illness.

I was taken immediately back into a room when I arrived, which if you’ve ever been to an ER in the United States you know doesn’t happen unless you’ve filled out copious amounts of paperwork or you’re obviously and dangerously in need of medical attention They confirmed my fever was hovering around 105 and started me on IV fluids to hydrate me and Zofran to stop my nausea.  My system was so taxed and fluid deficient that I had stopped producing urine, so it took several hours and several bags of IV fluids later for the doctors to be confident that I’d come to the hospital in time, and that my kidneys were unlikely to have suffered serious damage.

The hospital staff all suspected I had H1N1 and asked if I’d been around anyone who was sick.  Of course, I had – those children who were so very sick themselves.

While I was admitted, my time at the hospital was miserable.  Not because of the care I received, but because hospitals are by nature active, light-filled places where people touch you and stick you with sharp objects.  Though I was still very sick (feeling only a bit better), after my second bag of IV fluids, I couldn’t wait to go home.

One of the H1N1 Vaccines - Courtesy CDC

One of the H1N1 Vaccines initially provided only to high-risk groups – Courtesy CDC

A few days of rest at home, and I felt well enough to reach out to friends, although I was still on quarantine. It turned out that three other people at the party had also become seriously ill on the same timeline as me, although none of them required hospitalization.  I asked one of these friends why those kids hadn’t been vaccinated as at the time you couldn’t escape the calls for  high risk groups including children to be vaccinated.  She said the kids didn’t have any of their vaccines, and that it ‘wasn’t that unusual’ for parents not to vaccinate their kids.

Until this point I hadn’t been angry about being sick, it was just one of those things that happened.  But once I found out that this horrible illness could also have been easily prevented, I was livid.

Someone else had made a decision about my health for me! I was out several hundred dollars on ER copays and prescriptions.  What right did someone have to make this decision without my consent? I thought.

Being in grad school at the time, this experience offered me a laser focus for my graduate studies as I was now legitimately interested if vaccines did have any link to autism or were more dangerous than the diseases they prevented, and also the moral and ethical implications behind the decision to not vaccinate.

In conducting systematic secondary and primary research over three years I discovered that not only are vaccines not more dangerous than the diseases they prevent, they also have no causal link whatsoever to autism.

I did something that is so crucially important to being a decent human being and a good member of society: I changed my mind with new information.  I was wrong before (and I’m kind of glad I wasn’t vocal about my beliefs).

Something that Julia and I strongly believe in is that it needs to be OK for people to change their minds with new information without facing shame, ridicule, or judgment.  This rarely happens on the internet or in real life.  With digital media we now have a written record of all the things we once believed and friends that can hold us accountable to those beliefs.  If we change our minds, it’s somehow seen as inauthentic or fake.  No one is allowed to change their mind about anything and that leaves parents, as people who have to constantly adjust their way of being with their developing offspring between a rock and a hard place.  How can we expect parents to do better when they finally know better, if they’re ridiculed for admitting what they once believed was wrong?

I never reached out to the parents of the children at the party, because at the time I was too angry with them over my experience to even consider speaking with them.  Though, as the years have passed, I’ve often wondered about them. I’ve wondered if their kids had to be hospitalized from H1N1 as I was.  I wondered if seeing their children so seriously ill changed their minds about vaccines and the diseases they prevent.  I’ve wondered if anyone ever took the time to sit down with them and talk about their fears with empathy or if they only faced judgment and scorn.

One thing is for sure; that family changed my life, and while they never intended for it, they made me a better person for the experience.

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Categories: Faith + Beliefs, Infectious Disease + Vaccines, Science 101 + Mythbusting