The Immunization Partnership asked some of the leading voices championing immunizations — the heroes in the fight against vaccine-preventable disease – what set you down the path of immunization advocacy? What made you passionate? In short, what is your origin story? Throughout the next few months, we hope to showcase the responses.
by Dorit Reiss
Getting drawn in:
My son was born in 2010. My mom said he was a big baby, at 8 pounds 10 ounces, but it certainly didn’t seem that way to me: he looked so small. I really, really, really wanted to do right by him, to take care of him in every way. There were scary stories in the news about a whooping cough epidemic. When I asked my doctor what I could do to protect my son, not yet two weeks old, her best advice was to get vaccinated myself, so I did. We were lucky. He didn’t get whooping cough.
Fascinated by everything baby, I got addicted to reading parenting blogs in my spare time. One day, one of my favorite blogs, written by a scientist using the pseudonym Squintmom, published an article discussing measles in 2011 – a bad year – and myths about MMR. And someone made a comment repeating anti-vaccine claims.
I’m a history buff, and reading about early modern history means many, many heart rending stories of how what are now preventable diseases killed the young, old, and everything in between. So I was shocked to my core that someone could oppose vaccines that protect against them. I read the comment twice, and it still did not make sense. So I started reading more, via online sources and books. And the claims against vaccines did not make any more sense. I’m not a scientist, but the answers provided by scientists to those claims were, well, solid. Powerful.
I started commenting. First on Facebook, then on other articles. I changed my professional focus, from regulation and agency accountability to vaccine policy. The topic took over my life.
There are multiple reasons continuing to speak up for vaccines is very, very important to me. The rest of this post is a list – in no particular order – of those reasons.
The most straightforward one is that I have hostages to fortune. I have a young child. I have young and incredibly adorable nephews. I don’t want to see diseases that we can keep at bay come anywhere near them, thank you. Or their friends. Or other little people I don’t know. We owe them better. If we can prevent a danger from coming near a child, we should. Yes, my son, and my nephews, like most children, are fully vaccinated. But no vaccine is 100% effective, and I’d rather, if they are in the small percentage who suffer vaccine failure, that they not be exposed to something that can be prevented. And other children and adults also deserve better. Letting people suffer when we have a safe, effective preventive at hand simply seems unconscionable.
I started the Before Vaccines blog following a discussion on the Anti-Vax Wall of Shame, a Facebook group created to publicly expose (and mercilessly mock, which I have more mixed feelings about) the excesses of anti-vaccine claims. In that discussion, our older members told about their own and their family experiences with Vaccine Preventable Diseases. I thought we should document those stories, since most people haven’t seen the diseases. Through the blog, I spoke to people who have lost family members, friends or students, or seen them suffer, or suffered themselves, because of diseases we can vaccinate against. It’s nowhere near the experience doctors who have to see these things up close have. But it brought home to me how important this is, and thinking about those stories keeps me going.
Vaccines protect children, and safeguard the public health. Being a part of those that work to promote immunization rates gives me a purpose. Something to do that means something. I’ve met amazing people in this journey – people with large hearts, brilliant minds, dedication and selflessness. I’m very proud to know them, and am amazed to be a part of some of these groups.
When I was 18, I became a soldier-teacher in the Israeli military, teaching Hebrew to new immigrants from Ethiopia. After my military service I worked in a day care. During graduate school, I TAed, and since 2007 I teach law. Teaching is a large part of my life. I like explaining things. Explaining vaccine issues in comment threads, writing informative blog posts is another form of teaching. It’s a professional joy.
Finally, as some people may have noticed, the discussion about vaccines is often conducted with less than perfect decorum. I have come across occasions where anti-vaccine activists tried insults and intimidation tactics. And yes, I realize pro-vaccine advocates also use harsh terms against the other side.
I admit that is, at times, another motivation: I don’t like it when people try to shut me up. Out of sheer contrariness, it makes me want to do more.
Dorit Reiss is an Associate Professor of Law at the University of California Hastings College of the Law. She recently wrote a piece for the San Francisco Daily Journal on speech, intimidation and the anti-vaccine movement, which we highlighted last week.