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Vaccine hesitancy: the appearance of the bull

Updated: Apr 11, 2022

"Do you know how many shots they give to two month old babies?? Five! Five different shots. And some are combinations. That can't be good for them."

I've talked to many parents who were hesitant to give their children routine immunizations. Some eventually changed their mind. Some altered the schedule so that instead of five at once, the five were spread out over a year. Still, I was surprised to hear this coming from my friend Martha.

She is about as pro-immunization as anyone I know. With good reason. Her husband is getting chemotherapy and is immunosuppressed. She donated a kidney and so knows how transplant recipients live in fear.

When the COVID vaccine came out, she was first in line,. She got booster after booster, a fourth one even before it was approved. She is an advocate for vaccines.

But then it was her grandchildren.

To be fair, her twin grandsons were particularly fragile. They'd been born very early and had been in neonatal intensive care for 2 months. Thankfully, they were doing well. But it had been stressful,. Nobody was taking any chances. And vaccines suddenly seemed risky.

An old Spanish proverb: "The appearance of the bull changes when you enter the ring."

Let's face it: immunizations are weird. On the one hand, they are the most successful public health intervention in the history of the world. They have saved millions of lives. The ones we use today have been studied extensively. Complications and side effects are extremely rare. On the other hand,, because vaccines are so effective, we don't see the diseases that they prevent. It is easy to think that those risks are gone. Instead, we see the needles. We see the babies crying. We think about the manufactured pathogens that are being injected into the healthy bodies of babies. Vaccines mess with our immune system which is, both biologically and metaphorically, our body's way of defining boundary lies between self and other.

To make a decision about a vaccine requires us to hold two different models of the world in our heads at the same time - one that considers the known scientific data and one that sees the needle and feels the pain. And then to decide between the two. Martha felt the horror. And then chose to go with the science. I do too.

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