Health & Medicine

A Wisconsin neighborhood's deep divisions over vaccination expose the fault lines of a nation

This story is a part of

Human Needs

This story is a part of

Human Needs

immunizations.jpg

A teenager receives a tetanus vaccination at the Remote Area Medical and Operation Lone Star joint health clinic at Palmview High School in Mission, Texas August 5, 2014.

Credit:

Shannon Stapleton/Reuters

I live in the Williamson-Marquette neighborhood in Madison. It’s famous for its progressive 1960s past, and retains a lot of that counter-cultural vibe today — even as a new generation of residents has pushed up the rent. My parents came to visit during the 2012 elections and told me they would take a walk until they saw a Romney sign and then they would turn back.

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They came back exhausted.

I assumed that I had the pulse of the neighborhood, until I saw some statistics in the local paper: The school one of my kids attends has a non-vaccination rate of 13.8 percent. That’s the highest rate of any public school in the city, and well above the statewide average. These families claiming vaccine exemptions were my neighbors. I reached out on Facebook to find out more.

Hey neighbors. I recently found out that Marquette Elementary has a non-vaccination rate of 13.8%. That’s one of the highest in the country! I’m thinking about doing a story on it. If you don’t vaccinate, why? And hey, can I interview you about it?

The replies came fast and furious, and at first, they were mostly positive. A few of my non-vaccinating neighbors said they’d be happy to talk with me on the radio. But then I started getting Facebook replies like these:

How sad! This is supposed to be an area of intelligent and socially minded people, but the fact that many choose not to immunize says many other things about our neighborhood. Sadness.

These decisions are based on fear and internet pseudoscience. Come on people.

Two things keep more people alive than anything else we do; modern plumbing/sanitation and immunizations. What the hell is wrong with my neighbors!

By immunizing our own children we not only protect them we also protect the children with whom they play and learn and come in contact with. F*** you for putting my grandchildren at risk!!!

The vitriol surprised me. I deleted my post.

I didn’t anticipate just how touchy this subject was, so I followed up by phone and email, away from social media. Eleven non-vaccinating neighbors — all of them mothers — agreed to talk to me. Of those, six families were completely unvaccinated, three had passed only on Measles-Mumps-Rubella (MMR), and two had chosen some vaccines but not others.

All 11 women asked for their names not be used, which I agreed to. I scheduled the interviews one after the other on a Saturday morning. It became something of a walking tour of the vaccine debate.

On Friday night, the emails and the calls started coming. One mother asked if I would be brining a lot of equipment — I was planning to bring a sound engineer with a boom mic — and if I could setup inside. She didn't want people to see.

She called back Saturday morning and backed out completely. Likewise, another mom reached out to me by email.

Good Morning, I’ve thought a lot about this and although the need is great, I don’t want to be interviewed after all. My sister would (seriously) disown me if she ever heard about this and though I wouldn’t care much at all if that happened, my kids and my mom would be quite sad. Sorry.

Another backed out of the interview because of disagreements in her own household.

Charles. Look. My husband is NOT on board with not vaccinating. He wants Measles and Polio and is worried right now (which has caused a LOT of marital stress), we’ve been kicked out of a playgroup and uninvited to a party! Your topic is very appropriate and I’m looking forward to hearing the full show.

And another:

I’m out. It would ruin my family if they heard me; we agreed 9 years ago not to talk about it. You could use my words but not my voice. It’s a tough spot for us all…I know dozens and dozens of people- and so do you- that don’t vaccinate or selectively vaccinate but our society’s haters and fear-mongers (my sister included and your neighbor that told me to f*** off) make us not want to speak up. It’s self-preservation. Not worth throwing ourselves into that pit of hate and judgment.

It was clear that non-vaccinating families felt like they were under seige. Whether it was from the recent measles outbreak at Disneyland or other factors, this decision had pushed them underground. By the time my sound engineer and I hit the ground on Saturday morning, there were just four remaining interviews of mothers who did not vaccinate or did so selectively. In the meantime, I also spoke with four women who did or were vocally in favor of it.

So what divides a community? Arguments about “community” itself. I spoke to a local store owner, who was worried about the high local rates of non-vaccinated children.

"This isn’t really about taking sides with anyone. This is about babies. They could get sick. They would go deaf. They could die. I feel a big responsibility for these most vulnerable community members," she said.

But for most anti-vaccinators, this decision is about self-empowerment and personal choice.

"I think as a mom you have to trust your gut. You have to trust your instincts. Don’t let other people sway you. Don’t let your doctor sway you. Question everything," she said.

That was perhaps the most consistent thing I head from these non-vaccinating moms: Question everything, including your doctor. Though no one cited the now-debunked studies linking vaccines to autism, they shared a different, more personal narrative: an unpleasant childbirth.

The non-vaccinating women I spoke with discussed the medicalization of the procedure, being given an epidural too soon or being given one at all, being forced to take advice they didn’t want or plan for. Some of these same women took a completely different route for their second kid, giving birth with a midwife at home. They discussed how much more positive it was; how they felt in control and empowered.

Afterwards, as they sat back and compared the two experiences, they came to a conclusion: Modern medicine — and especially pharmaceutical companies — cannot be trusted. And if you can’t trust them when your child is being born, why would you trust them months later when they say your child needs a battery of injections?

I brought this issue up with one of the women in my neighborhood who does vaccinate her kids. She also happens to be an ER doctor.

"I understand that fear. There are a lot of reasons to be critical of the medical system. I’m a mom. And I get paranoid too. I understand fear. But sometimes as a parent you have to let that fear go. I feel like [vaccinating] is my responsibility to my community. We do this as a community thing," she explained.

It can seem that these are intractable positions, fundamental disagreements on what it means to raise a child or be a part of a community. It can seem like no one's mind can be changed. Then I heard one more story.

I spoke to one woman who cherry-picked her children’s vaccinations, and one of the shots they opted out of was for chicken pox. When her husband got a severe case of shingles — a contagious, adult reactivation of the chicken pox — he passed it on to his two children. One of the kids had a mild case, but the other child, according to his mom, “got walloped.” An infected pock in the ear required an ER visit.

Her advice to those considering not vaccinating her children? “Just get the damn vaccine. Don’t put yourself through this.” She’s now planning on getting both of her children caught up on all of their immunizations.

But even her experience and admonition likely won’t end our neighborhood’s division. In fact, some parents in the neighborhood thanked her for giving their children chicken pox. One group even passed it around at a so-called “chicken pox party.” Needless to say, it was a party that only certain families were invited to.

This story first aired as an interview on To The Best of our Knowledge from Wisconsin Public Radio.