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Mnookin: Talking About Vaccinations

Vaccines may have been added to the list of topics to avoid at dinner parties, but now is when we really need to discuss it with our friends and families in conversations that are both intelligent and empathetic.

I’ve been drawn into this debate, partly because I’m the mother of a young child, but also partly because my brother, Seth Mnookin, is the author of The Panic Virus: The True Story of the Vaccine-Autism Controversy.

His book tracks the persistent myth that vaccines cause developmental disorders despite an overwhelming lack of scientific evidence. And while Seth received scientific awards for his extensively-researched book, not all feedback was positive. Vehement anti-vaccinators sent him scathing emails and hateful blog comments, including one in which the writer expressed the wish that he should die in the electric chair.

I studied science as an undergraduate and graduate student, yet when I became pregnant, I too found myself researching vaccines. I believe in vaccines, and I still do, but I didn’t know if my child needed them right away, or all at once.

Essayist Eula Biss also researched vaccination when she was expecting her first child. Her research led to an eloquent book entitled, On Immunity: An Inoculation, in which she concludes, “Immunity is a shared space - a garden we tend together.”

I experienced this shared space last week, when I brought my toddler to visit a friend’s newborn daughter. Too young to receive certain vaccines, this tiny infant was protected by our immunizations. My daughter could not (unknowingly) infect her.

Many parents in my Brattleboro community have chosen to vaccinate selectively, or not at all. Mostly, these parents have thought carefully about their choices and believe they’re doing what’s best for their children. Reasons range from distrust of corporate science to a general fear of toxins, from perceived corruption within pharmaceutical companies to government conspiracy theories.

Under current Vermont law, parents can cite religious, medical or philosophical reasons to exempt their children from any of the five required vaccines, which together provide immunity from nine infectious diseases. Parents use these exemptions, and Vermont has one of the highest rates of non-medical exemptions in the country.

I still support current proposed legislation to eliminate philosophical exemptions; this could grow our “herd” immunity. But legislation isn’t enough.

We must relearn how to talk to each other with compassion and to consider the broader impact of our decisions, as well as what it means to live not as individuals, but in community with one another.

Abigail Mnookin is a former biology teacher interested in issues of equality and the environment. She is currently organizing parents around climate justice with 350Vermont, and lives in Brattleboro with her wife and their two daughters.
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