A few weeks ago, I was afraid to leave my home. When I did, I carried hand sanitizer in my pocket. Scared of touching anything, I felt like Leonardo DiCaprio playing the obsessive-compulsive Howard Hughes in The Aviator, brutally scrubbing my hands free of germs.

As an unvaccinated adult living through a measles outbreak, I was terrified. Growing up, I never received the measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine. I can’t recall receiving any of the other recommended shots, including a tetanus shot.

I was a child of the so-called anti-vaccination movement, born in the San Francisco Bay Area, a place that’s now being scrutinized for its relatively high percentage of children who are not vaccinated.

Some 300 child care centers in the Bay Area have a measles vaccination rate of 92 percent or less, falling below the ideal rate for containing an outbreak, or as experts call it, maintaining herd immunity.

Attending school in the 1980s, I submitted paperwork opting out of immunization for religious reasons.

If you asked me back then why I wasn’t vaccinated, I doubt I could have provided more of an answer than that: for religious reasons.

My parents belonged to a loosely organized New Age movement that encouraged living a natural life; the guiding vision was of a return to Eden. Anything modern, especially in terms of medicine, was not exactly encouraged. Growing up in this world of contradictions and restrictions felt a lot like being a kid on Peanuts where all the adults talked in wah-wah static.

But what was I to do as a child—literally looking up to the nonconformist adults around me?

I assumed what I heard the adults say was right, and I feared whatever they shunned.

Vaccines are filled with bad things, like monkey pus.

Your body is a temple, and nothing unnatural should enter it.

If you eat right, you won’t get sick.

It’s a conspiracy, and the vaccines will just make you sicker.

These are all theories I recall hearing from my childhood, not necessarily from my parents, but from those around us. My mother’s choice not to vaccinate me was entirely accepted, and even encouraged, within our social circles. Many of my friends were home-schooled, and their parents didn’t vaccinate them, either. (I was also home-schooled for two years.) The spiritual leaders my parents followed, as well as the many naturopathic doctors we befriended, discouraged immunization. And while my mother to this day can’t exactly remember the details, rumors of vaccinations linked to autism and other calamities were widely circulated as fact. In my pristine corner of the world, Western medicine was a derogatory term, a practice used only as a last resort.

Back then, just the idea of an injection of monkey pus kept me up at night.

No one ever alerted my mom to the possibility that, vaccine-free, I could make others ill.

My parents did entertain some aspects of Western medicine. I had a pediatrician whom I saw regularly. Even so, my mom’s first response to an earache was a drop of tea tree oil on a cotton puff, then homeopathy, followed up by the acupuncturist. In my house, apple cider vinegar and brown rice cured just about anything.

Both of my parents had received shots at certain points in their lives. In fact, one of my fears about vaccinations stemmed from a relic on my father’s arm, a smallpox vaccine scar. At that time, we thought by keeping me unvaccinated, we were actually making me stronger.

Those “conscientious objections,” as my mother later described them, returned for their reckoning this winter.

The person who told me it was time for my shot was my mother. She texted: “Honey, I think you should get a measles shot. Ask your Doctor??”

My mother—who three decades earlier had sent me off to school with paperwork requesting a religious waiver from vaccines—was now telling me to join the herd.

I didn’t reply right away. Instead, I showed the text to my boyfriend. “Well, I guess I should get vaccinated,” I said.

He just looked at me. “What? You aren’t vaccinated?” he asked.

The following day, while I was on a train departing Penn Station, without missing a beat of that maternal sixth sense, my mom texted me again: “Padmananda, they have found an outbreak of measles at Penn Station. Go get Vaccinated.”

Here’s the thing: When my mom uses my full first name, it’s serious. I was on a train and had just left a station where someone infected had passed through. I freaked out.

Should I be wearing a mask right now? What train was the person with measles on? Should I just cover my head and stop breathing?

That’s when I realized I hardly knew anything about vaccines, nor did I have a very good reason as to why I never got them. All of it was totally inexplicable, a faint memory made up of a chorus of voices telling me to fear something I didn’t even understand.

Once I got off the train and returned home, I vigorously washed my hands and then went off to Google-search answers. Among other things, I learned that hand-washing and applying globs of hand sanitizer did not protect me against an airborne disease.

By the following afternoon, my boyfriend had sent me two texts, one with a link to CVS clinic locations followed by another: “Not to alarm you but you should go as soon as you are able,” with a link to a news story that quoted Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, referring to “certain communities in California” where “herd immunity doesn’t work very well.”

My home state was now in the center of this latest debate over vaccines, starring as the villain. Back then, vaccinations seemed like a personal choice. I never thought of how my parents’ decision might have an effect on the rest of society. I had certainly never heard of herd immunity. So with this new perspective and an order from my own mother, I turned myself in.

Walking the few blocks from my work to the clinic, I was still nervous and even felt ridiculous. An adult about to get a shot I should have received years ago. What if it hurt? What if the doctor glared at me like I really had been on the run, finally coming forward to declare: Yes, I’m one of those kids raised by parents who lived in that small pocket of the world where hippies really do exist. I’m ready to surrender.

I signed in at the clinic.

“I’m here to get the measles vaccine,” I said, waiting for a look of shock from the nurse.

None came. Instead, she pulled out a small box. It was the MMR vaccine. “We’ve been going through these like water,” she said. “We have one left.”

And with a single prick, I was leaving my Bay Area bubble behind for good.

That night, I called my mom to let her know it was done. I was immunized. I asked her why she had opted out for me before.

I was on a health thing. No one got them for their children then. It was very open in California back then. I believed it was harmful.

While plenty of people back in the 1980s suggested to us that I could get sick from a vaccine, no one ever alerted my mom to the possibility that, vaccine-free, I could make others ill.

What happened to change your mind? I asked.

She told me she had been watching a medical report on ABC News that explained that the claims linking vaccines to autism were untrue. My mother had become open to the possibility that fears about the vaccine were unfounded. She was willing to listen to the other side of the debate.

We had both left behind the culture that told us vaccines were bad. Between my years on the East Coast and my mother’s move back to her home state of New Mexico, we had picked up a new normal, along with new experts, even ones whose names ended with “M.D.”

The evening after getting my shot, I felt relieved.

I would no longer have to wash my hands or hold my breath in fear. And I certainly wouldn’t be afraid of monkey pus anymore.

I was frightened of vaccines back when I was pregnant with my daughter 12 years ago.

I lived in the San Francisco bay area at the time, and if you’ve ever lived in the Bay Area, you know there are ways of thinking there that aren’t questioned like they would be elsewhere — especially those related to motherhood and children. The home-birth collective I was part of held an “immunization panel,” inviting parents to ask questions of practitioners on both sides of the debate. When I look back on it, I’m not sure how much range of perspective the panel included. But I really thought I had done my homework on vaccination. I read everything I could get my hands on, talked about it with our midwives, discussed it with fellow pregnant friends. And I came to believe that my daughter’s immune system should have a chance to build up on its own, without being bombarded with viruses and chemicals.

Before she was born, I spoke with her pediatrician about a delayed and partial vaccine schedule. And that is what we followed. For her first year of life, my daughter wasn’t vaccinated. I breast-fed her to help strengthen her immunity. I kept her out of day care so she wouldn’t be exposed to all of those germs. I steered her away from anyone coughing at the grocery store. I believed that I could keep her safe.

And when she turned 1, a magical number I’d decided was when her immune system would be strong enough, I took her to get her first shot. On her immunization record, it says that shot was for Hib, which prevents meningitis and pneumonia, among other diseases. A month later she got her first polio shot, and five months after that she got her first dose of DTaP, except I asked for the version that did not contain the P for pertussis. My understanding was that she was past the point when whooping cough could shut down her airways; I was more terrified of what I’d heard was in that part of the vaccine and how it could permanently damage her body. I can’t remember anymore what scared me so.

My attitude toward vaccines began to shift when I got sick with shingles and my then-3-year-old daughter kept wanting to touch the fiery blisters on my arm, chest and back. She could get chickenpox from those blisters, and I couldn’t imagine caring for a sick child while I myself was so miserable. So I took a cab across Jerusalem, where we were living, picked up a dose of chickenpox vaccine and took my daughter to an American doctor to administer it. He warned that it would take two weeks to build up her immunity and that she would need a second dose at some point for the vaccine to be even more effective. I felt some disappointment that I wasn’t holding out for her to get chickenpox naturally, but I was also relieved.

We left our life abroad abruptly and unexpectedly three months later, when we learned that our second daughter, who had been growing inside me for 21 weeks, had a life-threatening congenital defect. Our baby girl was born back in the Bay Area and was immediately hooked up to machines that helped her breathe and tubes that administered medicine and fed her my breast milk. Hoping for her survival, I approached the doctors with questions about vaccines. I was concerned about protecting my fragile daughter from viruses such as pneumonia that could kill her, but I also worried about harming her with more medicine than she could handle. The doctors explained that her well-being would need to be assessed day by day, sometimes hour by hour, and that it would be clear when she was ready to be vaccinated. Ultimately, none of it mattered. After 58 days in the NICU, I held my daughter as she took her last breaths and her spirit let go of her body.

After our baby died, we moved to the Midwest, and our new pediatrician was a heavy pusher of vaccination. “You can go blind from measles,” she explained. At first it irritated me, and I clung to my beliefs about not wanting to bombard my healthy 5-year-old with preservative-packed shots, many targeting diseases that didn’t even exist anymore, at least not in the United States.

But I realized I could no longer explain to the pediatrician or to other moms why vaccines were so dangerous. My fear of immunizations was dissolving, and I no longer felt the way I had when my first daughter was born.

When we made our decisions about vaccines the first time, it was all abstract. My child couldn’t die from measles, I told myself. My mom had had measles, and she was just fine. I hadn’t yet spent those weeks in the NICU, praying over my child that the fluid in her lungs wouldn’t become full-blown pneumonia. I hadn’t seen all of the other sick babies around her. I hadn’t heard from other bereaved parents about all the ways babies can die.

After all that, I could no longer take my child’s health — or my ability to protect it — for granted. And so I gradually let myself trust our new pediatrician and the vaccines she encouraged. My only holdout was the flu shot. I still believed that for my healthy daughter, and for our healthy family, the flu wasn’t a danger. We all took our vitamin D and fish oil, and ate well and washed our hands. The viruses our daughter got about once a year, whether the flu or something else, meant a lot of movies while she lay on the couch drinking Gatorade and sucking on popsicles; those viruses would strengthen her body to protect her from worse things.

It wasn’t until I read Eula Biss’s January 2013 essay on vaccinations in Harper’s magazine that I understood, for the first time, how herd immunity works. “Any given vaccine can fail to produce immunity in an individual, and some vaccines, like the influenza vaccine, often fail to produce immunity,” Biss wrote. “But when enough people are given even a relatively ineffective vaccine, viruses have trouble moving from host to host and cease to spread, sparing both the unvaccinated and those in whom vaccination has not produced immunity.”

I was reminded of a voice — my own voice from years before, when my first daughter was a baby — saying, “She’s safe even without her shots because everyone around her is vaccinated.” I actually said that, several times, to several people. Friends said the same thing to me about their unvaccinated children. We had that luxury — we could count on herd immunity to protect our children.

I can’t say exactly why the idea of protecting others hadn’t hit me before — I have always considered myself a sensitive and empathetic person. But I hadn’t thought about old people, those who could die even from the flu. I hadn’t thought about pregnant women and their babies. I hadn’t thought about children like my second daughter, who are too sick to be vaccinated but who need more than anyone to be protected from illness.

My son came to us through adoption, and there is so much we don’t know about his biological family’s health history. He is almost 2 years old, and he has had almost all of his shots according to schedule. The only one I requested delaying, because he was born early and weighed less than four pounds, is Hep B, but he had that shot within his first year.

My daughter is all caught up on her shots, too — after many doctors’ visits and trips for frozen yogurt afterward. At her annual physical this past week, she got some of her boosters and one vaccine that didn’t exist when I was her age: HPV. A vaccine that can help prevent the only known cause of cervical cancer? To me, that one is a no-brainer.

And this year we all got flu shots, including my strong-as-an-ox husband, because his work takes him to hospitals, nursing homes and other places where people are vulnerable.

I am not naive about this. I still read medical journal articles and philosophical pieces about vaccination, and I ask a lot of questions.

But I have accepted that I can’t protect my family from everything that is out there (and everything that is already a part of us). All I can do is my best to nurture our perfectly imperfect bodies.


Illinois: SB1410

Amends the School Code. Requires the State Board of Education to publish on its Internet website the exemption from immunization data it receives from schools. Provide that parents or legal guardians who object to health, dental, or eye examinations or immunizations on religious grounds must present to the appropriate local school authority a Department of Public Health objection form, detailing the grounds for the objection and signed by the parent or legal guardian, as well as a religious official attesting to a bona fide religious objection whose signature must be notarized (instead of presenting a signed statement of objection detailing the grounds for the objection). Requires the Department of Public Health to develop and publish a uniform objection form for this particular use. Provides that if the physical condition of a child is such that any one or more of the immunizing agents should not be administered, the child’s parent or legal guardian must present to the appropriate local school authority a statement signed by the child’s regular examining physician, advanced practice nurse, or physician assistant attesting to that fact. Effective immediately


This bill is from Dr Richard Pan and Sen. Ben Allen it ends religious and philosophical exemptions. According to Pan: “It is our duty and responsibility to protect all children who attend schools in California,” said Dr. Richard Pan, a State Senator representing Sacramento who has been working legislatively to get vaccination rates up while in the State Assembly. “SB 277 was introduced because parents are speaking up and letting us know that current laws are not enough to protect their children. As a pediatrician I have personally witnessed the suffering caused by diseases that are preventable, and I am very grateful to all those parents who are speaking up as a result of the recent measles outbreak.”


House Bill 2009 (HB2009) introduced by Rep. June Robinson, a Democrat from Everett and member of the House Health Care and Wellness Committee, House Bill 2009 (HB2009) would remove philosophical exemptions leaving only medical and religious exemptions in place.





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