Thursday, September 18, 2008

Today: Shot in SB

The Today Show, that staple of morning news and entertainment, came calling a couple of weeks ago, and asked me to appear on a segment. I said, “Sure, why not?”
The subject was shots: giving them to your kids, and taking shots of the verbal variety from our parents who don’t believe in giving shots to their kids.

Many people are surprised to know that the debate about immunizations has become so feverish. Symptoms include heated anger, harsh judgments and rejection of a rash of scientific research in favor of biased reports and anecdotal evidence supported by Internet anonymity. A vocal minority of “anti-vaxxers,” who derisively call those who vaccinate “sheeple,” argue that effects of vaccines are more dangerous than the actual diseases.
Parents are even more surprised to know that in several states, including California, those who choose not to immunize their children can simply sign an exemption waiver due to personal or religious beliefs. And in California’s public school districts, including Santa Barbara, parents have no easy way of knowing the actual immunization rate — or number of personal belief waivers — at a particular school.
Unfortunately, beliefs about diseases—even when passionately expressed—don’t prevent them.
A generation ago, vaccination was almost universally considered a blessing, and many deadly childhood diseases were virtually eradicated by widespread inoculation programs. But these days, large numbers of parents fear immunizations more than the virulent contagious diseases they once prevented. Immunizations work most effectively when a high percentage of individuals in a group are immunized; protection is achieved by something called “herd immunity.” Briefly stated, the fewer people immunized, the more susceptible the entire group is to disease. As a result, in places across the country where alarming numbers of parents choose not to immunize — including Santa Barbara — whooping cough (pertussis), a long-forgotten, devastating disease, has been on the rise; physicians and public health experts are newly alarmed about the incidence in measles, which may be the next immunization-preventable communicable disease to take hold.
My family learned about this phenomenon a few years ago when our then-seven-year-old contracted whooping cough from a local family who didn’t believe in immunizations. They chose not to tell anyone at school or in the neighborhood that all four members of their family were infected with the highly contagious disease. Despite his up-to-date immunizations, my son caught it.
I wrote about our harrowing, four-month ordeal with whooping cough in a cover story for the Santa Barbara Independent which is now easily accessible on the internet (entitled “The 100-Day Hack”). It details the reality of whooping cough, including family quarantine enforced by the County Public Health Department, along with his seemingly endless struggle to breathe, eat, or sleep despite absolute exhaustion from the nearly incessant coughing that lasted for months. While he battled the disease at home, two infants died from it at Cottage Hospital.
The long-term consequences of his long-ago infection include scarred bronchial tubes, an asthma-like condition called “reactive airway disease,” and constant vigilance about complications whenever he gets so much as a cold.
When I recently had a letter to the editor published in the New York Times in response to an article they ran about the issue of immunizations, a couple of national health writers interviewed and quoted me for their articles on the controversial subject.
That’s what brought the Today Show’s New York producer to my phone and the cameraman from NBC’s Burbank studios to my door.
Two hours of lighting made the cozy kitchen nook look warm and inviting on camera, especially with the stained glass window and strategically placed vase of sunflowers. Two more hours of set up for a half-hour interview and cutaway shots at the kitchen sink and on the living room couch (where I was instructed to page repeatedly through a photo album) ended up as maybe 40 seconds on the four-minute taped segment presented to Matt Lauer by the authoritative in-studio expert, Dr. Nancy Snyderman.
The segment included several physicians expressing alarm about the anti-vaccine trend—including a pediatrician who no longer treats children whose parents refuse immunizations—as well as another mom who stated her belief in the superiority of “natural” immunities to fight diseases. I spoke as the mother of a needlessly hurt child, and as one still shocked about the disturbing trend of individuals rejecting what many consider the greatest medical advance of the 20th century.
As fate would have it, this life-and-death subject found me, and I’ve had the opportunity to share my convictions—with my community yesterday and with my nation Today.

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