Opinion: I grew up unvaccinated because of dangerous rhetoric


Illustration by Ariel Landry.

Hannah Renton

Vaccines are an uncomfortable topic for me. When people bring them up, I usually stay quiet and avoid eye contact. It’s weird having to confess the fact I am mostly unvaccinated and then feel the wave of awkward silence and stares come over me. But it wasn’t always that way.

Growing up in one of the most unvaccinated counties in the country, I was under the illusion for most of my adolescence that vaccines were dangerous. More importantly, my mom was also under this illusion. And it wasn’t for religious reasons or fears of “catching” diseases and disorders, either. It was the power of persuasive, misinformed people with one or two unreliable sources. My mother is living proof of the dangers of misinformation, one of the main reasons I believe anti-vaccine rhetoric has become so widespread and out of control.

Since the beginning of 2019, Clark County, Washington has had the second most reported measles outbreaks with 73, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Due to a mix of radical religious groups and ultra-liberal earth-loving “hippies,” vaccines rates have always been below average where I grew up in Clark County, and it was very noticeable.

Many of my close friends from a young age were unvaccinated like my brother and I. I genuinely believed it was common to be unvaccinated until I moved out of Washington and was exposed to new, much more normal, and vaccinated, children. It was weird to me when they acted shocked or like I was going to give them a disease. Because I had grown up around this toxic rhetoric, I was convinced these kids were incorrect and their parents were the ones actually harming their children. It wasn’t until I stepped away from my mother’s beliefs and began researching on my own that I realized how misinformed my mother was – and how I needed to get vaccinated, quick.

The most interesting part of all of this is that my mom didn’t start as anti-vaccination. Both my brother and I received shots as infants. It wasn’t until my mom met a group of very convincing men and women at a fitness class that she started reading weird anti-vaccine books and believing the misinformation they were giving her. My mom was open-minded and naive enough to be convinced to turn against doctors and withhold vaccines from my brother and I for years.

And this is happening to countless other parents around the country. Anti-vaccine advocates are using lies and the viral nature of the internet to spread their rhetoric. This is incredibly harmful. People are reading articles or even just headlines, believing a centuries-old invention is actually a way for the government to control us. And there isn’t much being done on a bigger scale.

It wasn’t until the most recent outbreak that Washington State legislation began to change in order to prevent more outbreaks. Since 1979, Washington has allowed parents to exempt their children from vaccines for a variety of rationale, including “personal reasons.” This means, in some cases, parents don’t even need a doctor’s note to receive an exempt. While schools are supposed to require proof of vaccines or exempt paperwork, the state doesn’t keep tabs on the school districts. Many children are still slipping through the cracks unvaccinated.

I am an example of this. I was unvaccinated for all of middle school, but my school did not ask my mom for any vaccine records or an exempt form until I was in seventh grade. That was after attending the school for five years.

As of January 2019, Washington State legislation is trying to pass a bill to ban “personal exemptions” from vaccines, specifically for the measles, mumps, and rubella, as well as provide educational classes on vaccines for parental guardians.

With Clark County only having a 78% vaccine rate, the passing of this bill will hopefully prevent more children and families from being persuaded against vaccines. Though to many, it seems silly or unlikely for anyone to be convinced against vaccines, words are far more powerful than we assume. To this day, when I ask my mom why she didn’t vaccinate me or my brother, she simply says, “I was absolutely convinced. They got inside my head.”