I guess it all started with my fascination with herbal medicine and other alternative healing practices. I had a very nice and sizeable herbal remedy bookshelf, the pride of which was my ‘The Green Pharmacy‘ by Dr James D. Duke. I’ll come back to that in a bit. I also used ‘Healing Foods‘ by Miriam Polunin—still do when the occasion takes me. I liked my herbal teas. I was especially a big fan of Celestial Seasonings, which has proved to be extremely hard to get hold of in the UK. I liked the whole alternative lifestyle, I was an active Buddhist practising Nichiren Buddhism, and I did most of my shopping in a local health food shop. I was living in a town which had a big Buddhist centre just outside of it; though, in my defence, I did not take to astrology or reiki or faith healers, and I had some serious doubts about homeopathy. But I did use the phrase “Sometimes Science Doesn’t Know Everything,” and right now I want to slap my younger self.
But I wouldn’t, because as odd as it all sounds, this is what made me who I am today.
In 2004, my first child was born. Along with the usual worries of being a new parent in a foreign country was the question of vaccinations. I have to admit I do not remember the whole national outcry regarding Andrew Wakefield’s paper, now deemed fraudulent, about the MMR and autism, I think I was vaguely aware of the national conversation about vaccines, especially the whole question of whether Prime Minister Tony and Cherie Blair had vaccinated their youngest son. There were also plenty of articles in the Daily Mail, Daily Express, and The Independent regarding the MMR vaccine.
One day my ex-wife and I decided to head to the health food shop to ask “the experts” about vaccines. We were given a pamphlet written by an art lecturer in a local college that clearly stated that vaccines weren’t necessary. In fact, the art lecturer wrote, vaccines were probably more dangerous than the illnesses they prevented. I read that vaccines make babies’ asthma worse and induce eczema. There and then the decision was made.
So my eldest was not vaccinated. She did get ill, but never contracted any vaccine-preventable diseases. Yes, I did have to defend my decision. I used the “I am the parent, and it is my right” defence. Again, right now I want to punch my younger self. What’s strange, though, is that I wasn’t even particularly anti-vaccine—in fact, I got the flu vaccine when I could because I worked with vulnerable individuals in a nursing home. But somehow that kind of thinking—protecting myself so I protect those around me—didn’t stretch to me thinking about my home life. So this is how it was left and pretty much forgotten.
Until my second child was born in 2010. Then the whole question of vaccinating the child arose again. My ex-partner was not against the idea, but was also quite happy to follow with what my ex-wife and I had done with my eldest child—not vaccinate or at least delay the vaccines. But we had a few health struggles with the youngest. She had a hard time feeding, and was often little ill. Here was another reason to delay the vaccines.
Then three of us got this horrible cough. It would not relent. Would not stop. My eldest coughed so much one night that she vomited all over her bed and couldn’t remember any of it the following day. I had to sleep with pillows propped up. My youngest coughed and coughed and struggled often to breathe. We listened, and we Googled, we searched on YouTube. To this day I am still convinced that she had whooping cough, but the GP’s didn’t agree and diagnosed her with bronchiolitis, on the basis that he had not seen a case of whooping cough in 10 years. (Which in itself does say something about the available pertussis vaccine.)
Thinking about that barking noise my daughter made–how breathless she got, the fever, the gasp–I can’t help but think that the GP was wrong. My youngest got her vaccines shortly after she had recovered from all of that, but almost a year behind schedule. But still, despite our possible brush with a vaccine-preventable disease, inexplicably I didn’t get my eldest vaccinated. For some reason, I still didn’t think she needed the vaccines.
A few years later, in 2012, I began studying to be a nurse. During my placements in my first year, I started encountering patients, invariably over seventy, who had been affected by vaccine-preventable diseases, and who had survived but did not come out whole. There was a gentleman who was deaf because of measles. There was a lady who had callipers and used a wheelchair because of polio. There were people with bronchiectasis because of whooping cough. And there were beloved friends and families who hadn’t been so lucky and who had died because of those illnesses that we can now prevent with vaccines.
My mother told me about her experience of measles, and the siblings my grandfather lost due to whooping cough. Soon I got involved in vaccine debates on Facebook, especially on a page called ‘Refutations to Anti-Vaccine Memes‘. I started reading a lot more scholarly articles. I reflected and I wrote. I applied my critical thinking to my past uncritical thinking.
This is why I harp on now about evidence and education. One cannot be without the other, and without either, I would never have learned more about vaccines. Or medicine. Or nursing. Or the consequences of not vaccinating. My eldest daughter was lucky because of herd immunity, other people often aren’t that lucky.
Ingvar Ingvarsson is an Icelandic emigrant living in the UK. and a Registered Nurse with various health related passions. He is the father of two girls and stepfather to two more.