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The Vaccine Debate

Weighing Risks, Taking Responsibility

Shellie Michael of Nashville didn't give much thought to the question of vaccines when her son, Alec, now 6, was born. A worrier during pregnancy, she was still luxuriating in the relief of her healthy baby's birth when a friend challenged her decision to vaccinate him. The questions the other mom raised threw Michael into a tailspin: "I was tormented by the idea of holding down my baby while the nurse injected him with something that might damage him. But I also worried that if Alec wasn't vaccinated, he might catch a horrible disease. I was terrified by the possibility of making a wrong decision."

Ultimately, Michael decided that her son would be far safer vaccinated than not. She also realized that it wasn't a purely personal decision. "I think that parents have a responsibility to help keep immunization rates high, that the decision can't be only about your own kid. And now, having taken the risk myself, I get upset with parents who don't vaccinate because I feel like they're free riding off me. They can get away without vaccinating because other families are accepting the risks. I'm very bothered by that."

Not surprisingly, parents whose children have gotten sick from unvaccinated playmates feel even more strongly. Thirteen years ago, Mary-Clayton Enderlein, a mom of three in Seattle, contracted whooping cough (pertussis) from the seemingly healthy, unvaccinated baby sister of a friend her son was playing with. She was 38 weeks pregnant. The next week, she came down with a cough so violent, it caused her water to break. But tests came back saying -- falsely, as it turned out -- that she didn't have whooping cough. "Two hours later, my healthy nine-and-a half-pound baby, Colin, was born. The second I kissed him, I gave him whooping cough."

Healthy adults can fight the disease fairly well, but it's life-threatening for infants under 4 months. "It was horrible," Enderlein recalls. "Colin would cough until he turned blue and threw up." He spent ten days in intensive care and was on monitors for a month; for most of his first year, he was frequently sick with respiratory infections.

Even now, Enderlein doesn't believe that parents should be compelled to vaccinate their children, but she does think they should be educated about the risks if they choose not to. "They have to realize the social consequences if they don't vaccinate," she says. "They're making a choice, but the kids they expose their children to don't have that choice. It almost cost Colin his life."

When Mary Catherine Walther, the third of five children in Herndon, Kentucky, was 11 months old, she contracted bacterial meningitis and was hospitalized in critical condition. Her two older siblings had been fully vaccinated, but her mom, Suzanne, had refused the shots for her after a friend warned her about safety concerns. "I found a bunch of homegrown websites that said, 'Look at these beautiful babies. They all died of SIDS because they got their vaccines,'" says Walther. So she decided to postpone Mary Catherine's shots until she was safely past the 12-month mark, when the risk of SIDS ends. But just before her first birthday, Mary Catherine became desperately ill.

For more than a week, Walther didn't know whether her daughter would survive. "At night I walked the halls of the intensive care unit, and I was furious," she says. "I was angry at my friend for suggesting there was a problem with vaccines, at my husband for letting me go along with her, at myself for being arrogant enough to think I knew better than my pediatrician. My baby was suffering from a disease that could have been prevented so easily." Mary Catherine's now a healthy 4-year-old, and both of her younger siblings got all their vaccinations on time.