Soaring cases of measles in Europe and the U.S. are being blamed on ‘anti-vax’ parents who won’t let their children have routine jabs in the belief that it overloads the immune system. SASHA WALTON, 28, a research scientist in London, recently learned that she’d missed out on key childhood vaccinations, putting her — and any children she might have — at risk, as she reveals here . . .
Maybe it was the fact that I was now 28 and the prospect of having a child didn’t seem so distant. Perhaps it was because my father had recently read that there had been a rise in outbreaks of measles.
But, six months ago, quite out of the blue, he told me that I had not been vaccinated as a child. ‘If you are looking to have children one day, make sure you get your MMR vaccine,’ he said.
I was confused. Why wouldn’t I have had my MMR [a vaccine against measles, mumps and rubella]?
Sasha Walton, 28, a research scientist in London, recently learned that she’d missed out on key childhood vaccinations, putting her — and any children she might have — at risk (file photo)
Growing up in Bristol in the Nineties and early 2000s, I assumed that I’d been immunised against the major illnesses with routine vaccinations as a child.
I was born in 1991, a full seven years before Andrew Wakefield suggested a (disproved) link between autism and the MMR jab. But, already, the ‘anti-vax’ movement was making some noise about the safety of vaccines — and my mother fell into the trap as a ‘concerned’ mum who didn’t want anything bad to happen to her young child.
And that, it turned out, included not giving me childhood vaccinations.
My mother was a full-time mum with no background in science. But my father and I have a shared interest in biology and medicine, both with backgrounds in life sciences — and I was confident he’d know the dangers of not immunising.
Throughout my education, I was taught the importance of vaccination in protecting us from disease, and I just assumed he had felt the same.
But, while he insisted that he’d wanted me to have all my immunisations when I was young, he explained it was my mother who had usually taken me to doctors’ appointments — and so he could not be confident that I was protected and now wanted me to get checked.
And, according to medical professionals I’ve spoken to since, I’m certainly not in a unique position.
Indeed, in a story that’s made headlines in the U.S., Ethan Lindenberger, an 18-year-old student from Ohio, has recently been vaccinated against the wishes of his anti-vaxxer mother.
A few months ago, he approached his GP, who gave him the jabs. His mother responded by calling his decision to be immunised ‘insulting’ and a ‘slap in the face’.
Ethan has four younger siblings, including a two-year-old sister, who he fears won’t be vaccinated. ‘It breaks my heart that she could get measles and she’d be done,’ he has said.
I was born in 1991, a full seven years before Andrew Wakefield suggested a (disproved) link between autism and the MMR jab. But, already, the ‘anti-vax’ movement was making some noise
Suddenly, I found myself in the same position as Ethan: shocked, angry and very frustrated that I could have been put in danger. It felt as if I had missed out on something that is a human right.
Surely any parent who wants to be a good parent would have given their child those vaccines?
I called my GP to check her records, which showed that I had missed out on rather a lot of vaccinations: MMR, polio, tetanus, diphtheria, meningitis as a baby and HPV when I was a teenager. I’d had none of them.
The GP was amazed I hadn’t suffered with any serious illnesses as a result.
It’s also horrifying for me to think that I could have ended up with German measles while pregnant and my baby could have been born with abnormalities. I could have picked up tetanus from a cut or a dog bite; polio, which is life-threatening; or meningitis as a university student, which can also be fatal or cause brain damage.
The fact that I hadn’t got any of these illnesses was no doubt down to herd immunity — created by people who have been immunised. It protects those who haven’t.
It takes 95 per cent vaccine coverage to keep measles at bay, yet immunisation rates in the UK dropped to 80 per cent at one point and, in some areas of London, as few as 65 per cent of children had the jab.
As a result, measles cases rose sharply between 2001 and 2013 — when I was in my teens and early 20s — so I feel incredibly lucky not to have caught it, as measles can be very dangerous.
As well as complications such as deafness or damaging intellectual development, it can kill — one or two in every 1,000 childhood cases leads to death. A rise in measles is already killing people in Europe. Between January and June last year, 41,000 people in the region caught the disease, which is one of the most infectious on the planet. That’s nearly double the number in 2017.
As I let the news sink in, I was shocked that so much time had passed and I’d been living under the assumption that I was safe, when, in fact, I could have come down with any of these potentially deadly diseases.
Until then, the only vaccination I’d been aware of missing was the HPV, which protects against the virus that can cause cervical cancer. I was the first generation of girls to be offered the vaccine at the age of 13 in the early 2000s and I remember asking my mother to sign the form.
She said she didn’t want me to have it and told me she’d read a story, some report in the news, of a girl whose death had ‘possibly’ been related to the vaccine.
The anti-vax movement is gaining momentum, particularly in the U.S., where even President Donald Trump has expressed anti-vax views. That’s worrying
In fact, there’s no real scientific evidence of this.
But, even back then, I remember being frustrated by her response. I had wanted the vaccine — and yet, at that age, you want to think your parents know best. She put her foot down, and I never had it.
When I spoke to my father again, he felt at least partly responsible for my not getting the vaccinations. He knew full well their importance and felt he should have been more forthright with my mother about her views.
However, he threw no blame at her. ‘Mum would have thought she was keeping you safe,’ he told me.
In the end, I decided not to confront my mother about this. Although I was angry, it would do no good to blame her: I know she always had my best interests at heart, however misguided she may have been.
But, like Ethan Lindenberger, I did decide to catch up on the vaccinations I’d missed.
After consulting my GP, I was sent to the practice nurse, who gave me two jabs with six immunisations — MMR, polio, diphtheria and tetanus.
Under the weather
This week: Cholesterol rises in winter
‘If you measure levels of cholesterol in winter, they are on average about 2 per cent higher than in summer,’ says Dr Dermot Neely, of the charity Heart UK.
‘Whether this is because we tend to pick different foods in winter, and these raise cholesterol, or because we are less active, we don’t know, but there is a clear pattern.’
However, this doesn’t mean you should ignore any high winter readings in your own body, assuming that they’ll fall back down when the seasons change, says Dr Neely.
The heart generally doesn’t like winter — rates of heart attacks go up and, while 20 per cent of those who have a heart attack in summer die within the next month, this goes up to 28 per cent in winter. This may be due to a rise in blood pressure or thickening of the blood that also occurs in winter.
I’d told my mum I was doing this. She wasn’t happy about it, still shocked by the odd story of people being badly damaged by vaccines. But she did nothing to put me off. And, once she could see that I was fine, she stopped being so fearful.
A month later, I got my boosters and I’m now completely protected. (I’m too old to have the HPV or meningitis vaccines, but I’m told my chances of getting the illnesses are now low.)
When I’ve talked to my friends about it, many have been shocked. Yet I’m not sure any have checked with their own parents whether they’ve had their vaccinations.
People are so confident of their own immunity status. I certainly was. I remember hearing at school about the anti-vax movement and thinking how irresponsible it was not to be vaccinated — and yet I had no protection at all.
The anti-vax movement is gaining momentum, particularly in the U.S., where even President Donald Trump has expressed anti-vax views. That’s worrying. They’re a misinformed group, picking up on details they don’t understand, while being very vocal about it.
This is preventing the eradication of these harmful diseases. Indeed, the World Health Organisation has declared the anti-vaccine movement one of the top global health threats in 2019.
In fairness to them, my parents were making their decision decades ago, when publicly available evidence was scanter and scientists were less able to get their message across to the public via the media.
But today’s anti-vax parents have no such excuse, with a wide range of scientific review articles available to the public for free. In my view, to ignore this information is incredibly irresponsible.
In the meantime, we all need to be more aware of our own immunisation status. It would be wonderful if, every time you went to your GP, they were able to flag up any immunisations you were missing.
But, until that happens, I would urge checking with your GP. It might save your life — and the lives of others.