Lives in the balance

We will never change every mind. That’s okay, we have always known that. Some days are harder than others, and today was one of those days. The City of Toronto’s Board of Health is pursuing a solution to the growing problem of vaccine hesitancy, and one of the measures they’re proposing is ending non-medical vaccine exemptions for attendance in public schools.

Today I joined the deputations to speak about how quickly illness can spread in a classroom, can travel home to more vulnerable family members and the community, can cost people their lives. I talked about how while vaccines are our best first defense, some percentage of people will fail to develop immunity and we can’t predict who those people will be, and it’s vital that all of us who are medically able to receive vaccinations do so to keep everyone safe.

The annual flu shot is not part of the standard vaccination schedule and no one blinks an eye at the ~3500 Canadians and ~36,000 Americans who die from this preventable disease every year. But the standard schedule includes vaccines that are responsible for many of us being alive today, that are incredibly successful at protecting us from diseases that used to wipe out families.

We are lucky. We don’t know these diseases the way our parents and grandparents knew them. It’s rare for us to sit next to a polio survivor (like I did today), to talk with someone who has lost a child to measles or diphtheria. We have vaccines to thank for that. But we’ve also lost the perspective of how dangerous these diseases can be. Many of us don’t know what pertussis and mumps and tetanus really look like, and so we don’t fully understand how serious these diseases are. Vaccines are, to some extent, victims of their own success. Some people have stopped seeing the need for them because they don’t live with the diseases they prevent.

When one person in a room chooses not to vaccinate, it’s unlikely to have an impact. But what happens when that number grows? What if someone else in that room can’t be vaccinated for medical reasons? What if someone in that room has an underlying health condition that puts them at higher risk for the most serious consequences of a preventable disease? At what point do we prioritize a non-medical exemption for public school attendance over protecting another person’s life?

Today was hard. At times it was like sitting in a room with the contents of my inbox, and there were hours spent hearing people repeat provably false claims. But I won’t write off every person who came to speak today. I listened to some people share their stories, believing vaccines were responsible for hardships in their lives, or afraid that vaccines could be harmful. Each deputant had only three minutes, and that flies by. There’s a lot I don’t know about any of their stories, and we know that while vaccines are safe and our best first defense against illness, there are (extremely rare) instances of serious adverse events and it’s not fair to ignore those, anymore than we could ignore serious reactions to anything else someone might encounter.

My time at City Hall ended today as I was followed out with shouts of, ‘the flu shot killed your kid,’ and ‘you should know better, he died from his flu shot, not the flu,’ and ‘you’re wrong, you don’t know what you’re talking about, you’re part of the problem’. I knew these would be people’s thoughts today. It’s what shows up on Twitter, in my email, on Facebook. It’s fine. I know the truth, because Jude’s influenza B death was confirmed via autopsy. His body was taken apart in pieces and examined meticulously to understand what happened to a perfectly healthy toddler who stopped being alive in the space of a day. I have science on my side. So I can take the shouting and the trolling and I can let it go, because it doesn’t matter what these people tell themselves. We have evidence, inconvenient though it may be.

I won’t comment specifically on any of the stories I heard today, but I’m glad I heard from each parent there. The people who came were never going to be the people we reach with this conversation we’re having. That’s okay. It’s important to hear these voices, to understand this side of the conversation whenever possible. We all want what’s best for our kids, all of us. And no one wants to live the hell my family lives now. It’s easy to get angry about this conversation. That was my very first emotion when the coroner called to tell me Jude’s cause of death. But anger isn’t productive. Anger isn’t going to save anyone’s lives, and saving lives needs to continue to be the focus. What’s the best way to prevent the spread of preventable disease?

We have that answer. We just need to find the best way to put knowledge into practice.

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