Taking on doubt over vaccinations against disease

Austin American-Statesman, November 30, 2009

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On a recent Saturday, Rondah Kentch and I cared for eight premature babies in our neonatal intensive care bay. All of them were adorable, nearing discharge and had blank immunization consents on the fronts of their charts, waiting for signature.

With 65 years of neonatal nursing experience between us, we could handle the babies. What wasn’t so easy was getting consent from their parents to protect them from communicable, deadly diseases.

Jason’s parents arrived, and I knew within minutes that they were intelligent, highly educated and empowered with all of the information in the world at their fingertips. After warming to them, I brought up the consents.

“We just don’t know,” they said. “The government is telling us that children need so many shots, yet there’s that link with autism and the dangerous substances they put into the vaccines.

“And hepatitis B — how in the world would Jason get that? By injecting street drugs with shared needles? We’re leaning toward not getting them at this time.”

Two other sets of parents in the room who were listening intently expressed the same impassioned concerns. The parents turned to me and asked my take on the vaccines. I took a deep breath. And then I told them this:

I can see that you all love your babies very much and that you want to do the right thing for them. You’re young, though, and these diseases are not real to you.

Rondah here was stricken with polio at the tender age of 4. It was 1953, a year after Jonas Salk developed the polio vaccine, but two years before it was available. She was separated from her family and hospitalized for six months of gruelingly painful therapy administered every four to six hours around the clock.

But Rondah was one of the lucky ones. She survived with only a limp in her left leg.

I remember waiting in a mile-long line at the local elementary school with my family to get our polio vaccines. Polio had killed and permanently paralyzed many people in our community and all around the world. Think President Franklin Roosevelt.

Everyone standing in that long line felt a symphony of emotions — fear bordering on fright, feeling blessed, exhilarated by the promise and the triumph of human achievement over disease.

A nurse friend of mine contracted hepatitis B in the 1960s from a needlestick at work and was left sick and mostly bedridden for seven irretrievable years when her five children were young — an unimaginable torture.

Sixty years ago, leading research facilities began developing vaccines to protect us from horrific diseases that can sicken and kill us — diphtheria, polio, pertussis, tetanus, hepatitis B and more. These diseases are communicable, and they are preventable.

Many have become dormant because of vaccines. In the absence of population immunity, however, they will come back. There’s an alarming pertussis outbreak right now in Williamson County.

Your babies’ chances of harm by disease are real and far greater than harm by vaccine. I can back that statement with the best science from the World Health Organization, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

If Jason were mine, I would opt to protect him — and his community — from the real threat of disease.

The parents signed the consents. But I felt like I had just run a marathon.

I learned professional nursing by mastering the sciences. I was in no way prepared to fight a large and growing grassroots movement contemptuous of science and government that opposes the systematic vaccination of children against deadly diseases.

Children are already dying in this war against science. It won’t end, I guess, until enough children die.

Toni Inglis, MSN, RN CNS (retired), FAAN, a lifelong Austin resident, is a retired neonatal intensive care nurse and editor of NursingNews. She also wrote a monthly opinion column for the Austin American-Statesman editorial pages for 10 years.