The Vaccine Trial

When I was pregnant I received a letter from the Oxford Vaccine Group asking me to enroll my unborn child in a meningococcal vaccine trial once she was born. I’ve always been in favor of vaccines; I am a scientist by training so it makes sense to me to follow the current scientific consensus. So I was, obviously, quite keen on the idea of the trial.

Because I’ve worked as a research scientist, I know it’s really hard to get people to sign up to participate in research as adults. I’ve had to ask people to give extremely intimate samples after sex, because we were developing tests to convict criminals. It’s not a lot of fun.

But this vaccine trial seemed interesting. At the same time…my unborn baby! My husband, who, like me, is hugely pro-vaccine, said simply, “Yes, we will do this.” For us, it was about social responsibility. As John Donne said,

No man is an island,
entire of itself;
every man is a piece of the continent,
a part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less,
as well as if a promontory were
as well as if a manor of thy friend’s
or of thine own were.
Any man’s death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind;
and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
it tolls for thee.

So we signed up.

The great thing was that all the vaccines were given at home, and we had the most wonderful people giving them. It was so much better than dragging our baby off to the doctors’ surgery. The trial was faultless and our participation gave us incredible insight to the way a vaccine trial functions. And there were other things, perhaps less obvious, that were helpful to the researchers. My daughter is mixed race, so the researchers drawing her blood were able to gain experience drawing blood from babies with non-white skin. It’s a minor thing, but important. 

When the researchers came to our home, they made sure my daughter was not in the least bit distressed. It was always a pleasure to have them. Beforehand we got the de-sensitizing cream and the Clingfilm and the socks ready. Then an hour or so before they arrived my daughter would be creamed/socked up. Once the researchers arrived, we chatted and they would double-check with us that we were still okay moving forward with this. Then they’d give the vaccine and/or take blood.

After every vaccination I would keep a diary. Having been in a trial recently, I understood that these diaries are designed to pick up anything. Imagine if every day for a week or two you were asked how you felt, on a scale of 1 to 5 for a whole load of “things”? How are you sleeping? How are your bowel movements? Are you more alert? Are you less alert? Have you got muscle aches? Have you got a headache? Have you got nausea? All of that for a baby. The process made me focus on potential problems. I observed that my daughter slept and ate better after injections. Her temperature (which I took religiously, every day at the same time) was amazingly constant.

Because I’ve participated in one, I understand how vaccine trials are recorded, which also means I understand how they are misrepresented by anti-vaccine activists like Del Bigtree. In fact, they lie about them. Having my daughter participate in a vaccine trial taught me a lot about the process of a trial, and my response is to recommend the experience to every parent I know.

Since then I enrolled in a vaccine trial myself of two experimental Ebola vaccines. I am also part of a Patient Public Involvement Group. My daughter is now twelve and every sort of wonderful. She excels at school, and is an all-around lovely person, even if she takes inordinate pleasure in being taller than me. I tell my story sometimes on social media to try to demystify vaccine trials, to show that vaccines (even experimental ones) are far from scary. The response from most has been positive, but from certain quarters all you get is unpleasantness: “Wow. You’d risk your child… far out… you scare me…” Apparently I am a “v. poor mother” for offering my daughter as a “guinea pig.” I’ve even been told I did it for the money—and no, we weren’t paid. 

Ironically, lots of these same people claim to be all about safer vaccines. I wonder how they think we are going to discover “safer” and better vaccines without trials? I’d encourage everyone to sign up to a trial. Please do it. 

The author has the letters BA and MSc after her name, due to some odd conventions at certain British universities. She spent her career working as a laboratory-based scientist, including research and development. PCRs were a speciality. She has become involved in voluntary science communication work and has recently been published in a peer-reviewed journal on the subject.