Lately, as talk bubbles and percolates in the media around the new Covid-19 vaccinations and people express their suspicion of it, I cringe slightly inside. The idea of making a decision about a new vaccine is one I’m embarrassingly familiar with.
When I had my first baby in 1998 she had all of her vaccinations when the doctors called me about them: bam, bam, bam. No doubts or questioning from me. Her MMR (Measles, Mumps, Rubella) vaccination was a bit eventful, because she wriggled and the needle broke off in her arm and they had to pick it out and do the jab again, but it still wasn’t a big deal.
When she was four years old I had another baby. I was older and wiser. (I was 22). He was a fractious, grumpy boy, much smaller than his sister had been and much more fretful.
My baby boy didn’t like to feed and he didn’t gain weight. He was hospitalised before he was 2 months old with the first complications from a kidney problem that turned out to be a lifelong disorder. He was not a fan of eye contact or of smiling, and developmentally he moved at his own pace, which is the phrase that nursery teachers use when they want to say “slowly”.
Around the time of my son’s birth, there was a highly publicised furor in the news about the MMR vaccine. Andrew Wakefield’s research had hit headlines, with his famous Lancet article that went straight into the mainstream for its bold, terrifying claims of a link between the combined MMR injection and autism. The MMR, we were told, caused “leaky gut” in children, which in turn could lead to previously neurotypical children developing symptoms that put them on the autistic spectrum.
Parenting message boards were on fire about all of this. And I was an avid, devoted consumer of their content. Back then, there was no social media, and the internet felt slightly safer than it does now. Parenting message boards had a strange authority just because they were on a screen.
I already had concerns (lack of eye contact, slow language development) about my son. What if, I asked myself, he had the MMR and then became even more uncommunicative? What if, in seeking to protect him from three of the worst childhood diseases, I inadvertently created more difficulty for him for the rest of his life?
I am not a scientist. The research papers didn’t make a lot of sense to me, although I did skim-read them. I did not comprehend mere details such as the necessity of peer review or the importance of a sample size. What I reverted to, every time, was the soundbites. The headlines. And, honestly, the MMR frenzy being whipped up by the middle-class parents I admired and looked up to on those internet forums.
None of these parents were the irrational anti-vaxxers I already knew to fear. They all seemed sensible and measured and caring. And what they all agreed on was that to be on the safe side, we should all get individual vaccinations for our children. Not the combined MMR, which was rapidly becoming tantamount to child abuse, but a single dose of each inoculation.
Trouble was, those single doses came at a price. Trouble was, my husband and I were both trainee lawyers in those days. I was on maternity leave and still paying for my university courses. We were broke. We had enough money to keep our little family going, but we had just bought a bigger house, and there were no spare pennies anywhere.
We did it, though. I still feel a bite of embarrassment when I remember paying, with my credit card, for those stupid injections. The three installments were £100 each, at a time when £300 was close to the monthly payment on our mortgage. It was sheer lunacy.
We had to drive to a remote location, a shady-looking clinic literally in the woods, to get our son each dose of the drugs. As the machine purred happily around my credit card, the doctor praised my choice. Of course he did. He was laughing all the way to the bank, but I felt vindicated anyway.
One at a time, my son had the jabs. He did get his three MMR vaccinations, albeit at a price we could barely afford and with much unnecessary hassle and rigmarole. He was vaccinated.
But lots of children around this time weren’t vaccinated. Lots of babies who’d otherwise have been inoculated and part of the herd immunity strategy fell by the wayside.
Wakefield’s “research”, which was almost immediately challenged and had been comprehensively debunked by the time he was struck off as a doctor in the UK in 2010, did serious damage to the take-up of the MMR vaccine and to the resulting herd immunity, both in Europe and the USA. And cases of measles, a serious childhood disease that can often kill, began inevitably to rise.
This is, with no hyperbole, a tragic result. A disease which was on its way to full eradication — almost consigned to history, like smallpox or polio — began to make its insidious way back into the population at large. Most of the new cases were in unvaccinated infants.
Whenever I hear the somber statistics on the news about measles on the rise, the annual reminder to us all that we are a long way from the full eradication that had once seemed so tantalisingly close, I feel impotent fury. Not just with Wakefield and his criminally irresponsible fact-twisting, but with my naive younger self and my craven need to follow the internet herd.
My only comfort is that when he had his pre-school booster inoculations aged 4, my son had the full MMR. He should have had it as a baby, too.
The one thing that I do know, though, is that I won’t be making my decision about the new Covid-19 vaccine based on “Opinions On The Internet”. Yes ,it's been developed quickly and yes, there are commercial interests at play. But it's been developed faster than other vaccines because all the funding and green-lighting were already in place. I'm not frightened of it. I'm more frightened of a world where everyone says no.
If anyone can take anything from my single-vaccine embarrassment, it’s to follow my shamefaced lead on this. Get the jab, if it's offered.