I've Lived My Life Fully Vaccinated. Have You?

Bad Astronomy
The entire universe in blog form
June 17 2014 7:30 AM

Walking the Vaccinated Walk

I recently had the opportunity to go through some old files my mom kept around her house and found an old letter sent to her from the family pediatrician. She had written “Philip’s immunization record” on the front, and that gave me pause.

Phil Plait Phil Plait

Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death From the Skies!  

I’m a vocal advocate for vaccinations, of course—being science- and evidence-based, and also one of the greatest accomplishments in medical history, vaccines are something I encourage. So finding my own old records was pretty cool.

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When I opened the envelope, I had to smile. There was copy of my vaccine record; what looked like an old mimeograph of a typewritten form filled out by hand. Claiming I was a baby boy (correct!), and dated back to right after I was born, it had a list of my vaccinations along with some other medical notes:

vaccine record
My vaccine records from when I was a wee baby. I walk the walk.

Photo by Phil Plait

I had to shrink that scan to fit the blog; you can see a higher-resolution copy as well. With various dates, it lists me as being inoculated against measles, rubella, tetanus, pertussis, polio, smallpox, and tuberculosis. It lists several boosters as well.

Included with the copy was a small notebook they must have given my mom as well; it has much the same information, and some of it is filled out in her handwriting. I’m guessing it was a personal record to keep around. Remember, this was long, long before computers, folks.

I got a real kick out of seeing this. Good on my mom and dad for making sure my siblings and I got all our shots! But then, she was a nurse for many years, and no doubt saw what happened to people before vaccines for these diseases were available. The worst of the polio epidemic in the U.S. was long over before I was born, but the effects of it were still commonly seen when I was a kid.

We don’t see as many of these horrible diseases now, and many in the medical profession have openly wondered if that is, in part, why we see some resurgence in them. We’ve largely forgotten what it’s like when hundreds of people died from measles every year, or when hospitals had iron lungs lined up to help polio sufferers breathe, or when tens of thousands of children died of diphtheria.

Jenny McCarthy
Not a doctor.

Photo by s_bukley/Shutterstock.com

Of course, there’s also the rise of the anti-vaccination movement. This has grown for many reasons, but the current culture (pun intended) where, for example, native measles in the U.S. is wiped out makes it easier. I recently wrote about how this sort of belief isn’t as partisan as you might think; political belief is not a good indicator of a person’s stance on vaccinations. A fascinating study from earlier this year bears that out.

This is not a simple situation, especially when the media get a hold of it and start trumpeting one idea or another in an effort to get your attention—even when that idea may be obviously, provably wrong.

Worse, it’s all too easy to push people into being more polarized, as that study linked above points out. Even I’m guilty of that. That puts people like me in a lovely Catch-22: don’t talk about it, and let anti-vaxxers run rampant; or point out how and why they’re wrong, and risk alienating some people who may have anti-vax leaning but might have otherwise been swayed. It’s maddening, especially when a recent study showed that even an outbreak might not necessarily spur people into taking action on vaccines.

flu shot
I got shot! Well, my flu shot. And I'm pretty happy about it.

Photo by Phil Plait

All I can do is try to remain positive, even when polio is surging globally, when pertussis has reached epidemic levels in California, and when a current measles outbreak is setting records. The good news is we very nearly have vaccination rates in the U.S. that will make sure such outbreaks are minimized, and with just a nudge more we can achieve herd immunity that will make outbreaks even more rare.

Please see your board-certified doctor and find out if your inoculations are up to date. Mine are. And it’s nice to know they always have been, too.

Tip o’ the capsid to Jamie McCarthy for the link to the study on vaccine beliefs.