Before I was a doctor, I was a dad. My oldest daughter was two years old when I started medical school, so I did a little bit of parenting without the benefit of any medical knowledge at all. I remember her 2-month visit well. It was one of the few visits that my job allowed me to make, and my baby girl was getting her first set of shots (after leaving the hospital). I’ll be honest; I hadn’t given it much thought. I was fully immunized as a child, and I’m pretty sure I was fully re-immunized when I signed my life over to the U.S. Navy.
It wasn’t that I didn’t love my child—I did. And I still do. My girls are amazing, and I’d do anything for them. And it wasn’t that I wasn’t educated—I was. And I still am (much more so than I was then). But I figured that there was a reason why the CDC recommended vaccines, and I doubted that it had anything to do with conspiracy theories. They knew more about them than I did, for sure. I was a naval officer and could talk all day about how splitting atoms makes submarines move (it’s classified), but vaccines were a topic with which I was unfamiliar.
My wife and I hadn’t really talked about it; we just planned to go with the pediatrician’s recommendations—after all, we picked him because we trusted him. My daughter would be getting three shots that day, the combination of which would protect her against diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis, H. flu, pneumococcus, and polio. Seemed like a good deal. Ain’t nobody got time for polio.
But the doctor threw us a curve ball. There was another, newer vaccine that was…a little more optional. This one was designed to prevent rotavirus, which could apparently cause some pretty severe diarrhea in kids. Unlike the others, it was an oral vaccine–no needles involved. And while it wasn’t required by schools, the CDC recommended it. The doctor didn’t seem to care much either way, and he left it up to us: “Just think about it, and the nurse will be by in a few minutes.”
So we thought about it.
It was “recommended” but not “required.” I wasn’t sure what to do with that.
The information sheet he gave us said it could cause something called “intussusception.” I wasn’t sure what that was, but it sounded bad.
I didn’t get it when I was a kid. (But looking back, I didn’t get a lot of the currently-recommended vaccines when I was a kid.) And I did ok.
And it was supposed to prevent what? Diarrhea? Didn’t exactly seem life-threatening.
I vaguely remembered hearing that there was an “anti-vaccine movement.” Hadn’t really read much about it, but maybe they were onto something.
And the last thing I wanted to do to my baby girl was make a decision that could hurt her.
We were still thinking about it when the nurse came in. “So, what did you decide about the rotavirus vaccine?”
“We’ll do it,” I replied confidently, consciously repressing the thought that if anything happened to her, I’d never forgive myself.
She got the rotavirus vaccine that day. And again at her 4- and 6-month visits. She’s fine.
Over the last seven years, I’ve gained a little perspective. I’ve learned quite a bit about microbiology, physiology, and the function of the immune system. I’ve admitted numerous children to the hospital for dehydration due to rotavirus or similar illnesses, and I know that about 90% of severe rotavirus infections can be prevented by this vaccine. And even though the vast majority of cases in the US will recover completely with supportive treatment, the rotavirus vaccine has been shown to prevent about 30,000 hospitalizations per year in the US and to save about $125 million per year in associated costs. Worldwide (mostly in countries not fortunate enough to have access to quality medical care), rotavirus kills about 453,000 children every year.
As far as safety goes, I know that the chance of the rotavirus vaccine causing intussusception in my baby is remote (about 1.5 in 100,000 children, or 0.0015%). Especially considering that intussusception is a treatable condition, those are pretty good odds.
But I didn’t know any of that then. What it came down to for me–in that moment, was trust. Trust in the doctor that we had chosen to care for our child. Trust in the CDC’s recommendations. Trust that the scientists and physicians who develop and study vaccines knew more about them than I did. Trust that no one was trying to harm my child.
I know, the rotavirus vaccine isn’t currently in the running for Most Hotly-Contested Immunization, but I totally understand where vaccine-hesitant parents are coming from. I’ve been there. I hesitated…but I vaccinated. And I’d do it again.