Friday, October 23, 2009

vaccines, a quarantine, & how i ended up on "this american life"

ahh, vaccines! with the H1N1 threat looming (knock on wood), talk of vaccines is just about everywhere. and the topic, well, it's loaded like the diaper on a kid with stomach flu: it's fully loaded. it's messy. not fun. there are heartbreaking stories on both sides. even in our family, having had to quarantine f for three weeks when she turned one, having seen one of her buddies hospitalized with a fever of 106, losing hair and weight and being really, really sick because some other family decided not to vaccinate their kids, it's still a loaded subject. but as soon as san diego gets that H1N1 vaccine? sign us up - bring it on. we're all over that action.

during f's first year of life, we came to the conclusion that vaccinating for us is, among other things, a big leap of faith. we trust and like our doctors, we did a lot of research on our own, and we weighed the pros and cons over and over and OVER again, and then we thoughtfully and carefully went for it. we chose to stagger her vaccine schedule; we were grateful that her pediatricians were supportive of that choice. we loaded f up on probiotics and vitamins and did the best we could to vaccinate in a way that felt safe and smart to us. so four days after she turned one, even though i had yet to make her one year appointment - i was trying to finish "the vaccine book" before we went - all felt normal as we walked into her room at her daycare.

as i was trying to sign her in, one of her teachers asked, "has f had her MMR shot yet?" the MMR is the measles, mumps, rubella shot that kids generally don't get until their one year appointment. "no," i told her, continuing to sign us in. "ummmm... you need to go to the office then." might? i tried to set f down in the room with the other kids. "no, you need to take her with you." my mind started racing as i tried to make sense of what she was telling me, but really, i was just super annoyed. hello, i'm in a hurry here? i have to be at work at ten? sheesh. so f and i walked to the front office and found parents, kids, people looking distraught, and a woman with a clipboard who i didn't recognize. "what's going on?" i asked her. "has your child had the MMR shot yet?" ok, WTF, people? "no!" i said. "she just turned one and i haven't made her appointment yet." she looked at her clipboard and looked back at me: "a child at this school has been hospitalized with a confirmed case of measles, your child was exposed, and because she has not been vaccinated, she needs to be quarantined for the next 21 days." my first reaction surprised me, because instead of just freaking out, i laughed out loud and asked her if she could babysit. because dude! i have to be at work in an hour, and what are you telling me? quarantine? huh? and for THREE WEEKS? you've got to be kidding me. "so, if i take her to the doctor and she gets the shot today, can she come back tomorrow?" i asked. "no, no, no, that's not how it works. she is NOT TO LEAVE YOUR PROPERTY for THREE WEEKS. TWENTY ONE DAYS." the woman, it turns out, was from the state health department, and she meant business. she took our names and phone numbers and gave us a photocopied piece of paper with "the symptoms of measles" printed on it, and shooed us out the door. i went from laughing to freaking out pretty quickly.

over the course of the next few days we were able to piece together the reason for the exposure, and it became more and more infuriating as the story unfolded. a family from san diego who chose not to vaccinate their children went on vacation to switzerland, where measles is apparently more common than it is in the US. their seven year old boy contracted measles while there and brought it home with him. because it presents like a bad cold, he went all over the place, exposing people unknowingly. his parents finally took him to the doctor, and a handful of kids who were just in the same waiting room on the same day all got measles from him. then they exposed a ton of kids, again, their parents not realizing what it was until the exposures had already happened, and finally, a ten month old boy at f's school got it, and he kept coming in with what his parents assumed was just a bad cold, thus exposing every child there. the way the woman from the health dept. described it, "it's the most infectious disease known to modern man." the virus can live for two hours in the air and on surfaces. so if a child sneezes and you walk through that spot TWO HOURS LATER and you've never had the vaccine: good luck. good times!

(the only news footage of the SD outbreak i could find on youtube)

that first day, j was able to come home from work and stay with f while i went in to my work. that night, we (freaked out/yelled/panicked) created a plan with both of our (very understanding) bosses: j would work 6am-noon, come home, we'd high-five and hand off the beeb, then i'd go in, be live 1-3pm and while i was on the air, i'd pre-record the following morning's 10am-1pm show. i'd get home around 3:30 and j would then work a few more hours. so, that's what we did for the next three weeks. meanwhile, f was not supposed to leave the house. she was one. we lived in a three story condo with no yard. it sucked.

well, let me back up a bit. it was hard, yes, and frustrating, yes, but once the scare that she was going to get measles passed (after a week, we knew we were in the clear based on her exposure date, but she still had to stay in quarantine for 21 total days) we just hunkered down and made the best of it. we made a BIG deal about the different levels of our house: f, let's go UPSTAIRS!! whee! UP-STAIRS! it will be awesome. and now, hmm, i don't know, should we go DOWNSTAIRS? YES! LET'S GET CRAZY! hey, at one year old? it helped. we got out all of her clothes and let her play with our clothes and books - oh, the books! we read so many books. and TV, well, thank GOD for television. TV? i love you. it was then that our high-mindedness about kids and TV watching just about went out the window. it wasn't TV, it was SANITY. about ten days into it, she got a little pimple on her back, which we lovingly referred to as her "measle". we did covert runs to the starbucks drive-through - they didn't count, we told ourselves! she wasn't even out of the car! the state health department called us about every other day; at first, it was to ask about symptoms, but once she was in the clear, it was all big-brothery, making sure we hadn't left the house. once, we blew bubbles in our back driveway, but then i felt guilty and weird, so we went back inside. state health department: 1. us: 0.

but while we were bemoaning our fate (stuck - mostly - indoors with a one year old for three weeks! oh, the horror!), f's little 10 month old pal c was seriously suffering. we heard he had been exposed by the 7 year old who'd gone to switzerland because c had been in the same pediatrician's office the same day as the sick 7 year old. and c wasn't even close to getting his one year MMR shot - his parents hadn't even had the luxury to choose whether or not to vaccinate him yet, poor babe. he was hospitalized with a fever of 106 - he lost weight and hair. when he finally came back to their school about a month later, he just looked lethargic. it broke my heart but hey - he survived. thank god. seeing c be so close to not surviving - it just made me that much more angry at the family that chose not to vaccinate.

here's the thing: i still fully believe that every family has the right to choose whether or not they want to vaccinate their kids. i also believe that along with choosing not to vaccinate comes HUGE responsibilities to the greater community that should go hand in hand with serious lifestyle adjustments. you don't vaccinate? fine. home school, then! and don't take your kids to countries where the likelihood of them getting sick is high, and then bring them around and traipse them around in public when they start showing symptoms of illness! in other words, USE COMMON SENSE. just because you make that choice for your family doesn't mean it's ok to then let that choice endanger everyone else. and it's not only physically, but financially as well; we were lucky that our bosses helped us make it work. what about families who had to take those three weeks off? is the unvaccinated family going to reimburse them?

ok, /rant. c survived and is now thriving, our family stayed (mostly) sane, no one that i know of was permanently harmed by the san diego measles outbreak. i blogged about it on the station i was on at the time's website, calling it "the quarantine chronicles" and wouldn't you know, i ended up being on "the news hour with jim lehrer" on PBS TV, in the L.A. times, and even on "this american life" (you can check it out here). crazy. one night, the local news showed up AT OUR DOORSTEP to talk about it. um, hi? you got our address how? it was a little ridiculous and i was glad when it all blew over. it was an intense experience that forced us to think about vaccines more than we ever had hoped to, but i came out of it feeling far more confident about the choices our family makes, at least where vaccines are concerned. we are getting the H1N1 vaccine as soon as we can, and i can only hope that parents with sick kids will just please keep them home from school and daycare, this and every flu season. swine flu! god help us all. my name is hilary, and i vaccinate my kid.


  1. Hi my name is Jen and I vaccinate my kids too. Just this morning I made them an appointment to get ful shots in 10 days. (The soonest I could get.) But it may be too late. My oldest has a high fever that started this morning. If it is H1N1 then there is no one to blame other that "intelligent designer" who was lazy enough to use the same model for the receptors in the respiratory systems of pigs and humans creating a virus mixing paridise. Ahh the second dose of motrin just kicked in.

  2. My boys have received most of there vaccinations but will not be getting the H1N1 or Varicella vaccine. I keep my boys home when they are sick and I don't plan to travel anytime soon. You see my youngest has autism. Classic autism, not the pretty kind you hear about today. It started the day he received his DPT vaccination. Bummer for us right.