Karey Williams never thought a parenting decision would come between her and a good friend. The two had known one another for a decade, supported each other through infertility treatment and had their first babies around the same time. But when she told the friend that she had stopped vaccinating her daughter at age 1, the relationship abruptly ended.
“She said, ‘Well then, your child can’t come into my house,’” recalls Williams, 47, who lives in the Chicago area.
That’s not the only time Williams has encountered conflict because of the decision she made for her daughter, now 7. “I’ve had people voice their opposition to me, that I’m ruining the herd immunity … that my child would put their child at risk,” she says.
While the vast majority of American parents vaccinate their children, more appear to be opting against immunization . One study found that the percentage of parents who took personal belief exemptions to state laws requiring school-age kids to be vaccinated increased from just under 1 percent in 2001 to about 2.5 percent in 2004.
Heightened attention to the heated vaccine debate has parents on both sides of the fence discussing the issues more and sometimes finding themselves in awkward or even acrimonious social situations. Whether an unvaccinated child should be kicked out of a play group was the topic of a recent ethics column in The New York Times Magazine that got considerable buzz in parenting circles.
Many parents who choose not to vaccinate — often because of fear that autism could be caused by vaccines (though there's no scientific evidence of a connection), or they have other philosophical or religious objections — argue that if another person’s child is immunized, what’s the problem? Many parents who vaccinate feel this way too, if they think about the issue at all.
But vaccines aren’t an absolute guarantee. Most are 90 percent to 99 percent effective, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. State-by-state vaccine exemptions
Jennifer Collado, 37, of Glen Rock, N.J., says members of her son’s toddler play group were “stunned” when one mother mentioned that her child wasn’t vaccinated. The group didn’t kick them out though, and shortly after they moved out of state. But the group felt that information should have been mentioned upfront. “Someone pointed out to her that it was her choice to do that but that she was putting everyone's kids in jeopardy by not having her kids vaccinated,” Collado says.
'Like a secret society'
Knowing how volatile the subject is, many parents opposed to vaccination choose to avoid it in conversation or seek out play groups and schools with other unvaccinated children like their own, say Williams and others.
Video: Vaccine refusals mean more measles “It’s sort of like a secret society,” says Williams, who is on the board of directors of Moms Against Mercury, a North Carolina-based group that opposes the use of mercury in vaccines. “You feel each mom out and when you feel like you’re on the same page, you discuss it.”
Sara Michalski, 28, a mother of two unvaccinated children in Colorado Springs, Colo., says most of her friends do not immunize their kids, either. And beyond her close social circle, she's reluctant to talk much about it with others because she doesn't want to get into an argument. "I tend to avoid the subject a little unless I have some reason to think they might believe the same way," she says.
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At the same time, Michalski doesn't believe the decision to not vaccinate her kids is other people's business. “This is a private health matter, and not something people are entitled to know about unless I want to tell them,” she says.
Right to know?
But parents who don’t know who’s vaccinated and who isn’t have their own concerns, highlighted by the measles outbreak in San Diego earlier this year that resulted when an unvaccinated 7-year-old boy traveling to Switzerland contracted measles. The virus spread to 11 other unvaccinated children at both his school and his pediatrician’s office — including a few babies who were too young to receive the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine.
When news of the outbreak hit, Dr. Ari Brown says her office in Austin, Texas, received a spate of questions from worried mothers wondering if there were any nonvaccinating families in her practice, which there aren’t. “Parents were outraged,” she says.
“From the vaccinating parent perspective, it’s a little infuriating because you don’t know who these kids are,” says Brown, a vaccine proponent and co-author of the book “Baby 411.”
But do others have the right to know such personal medical information? Should parents inquire about vaccination status before a play date? Some say that’s taking things too far.
“Do I think it’s inappropriate to put a mark on people and kick them out from being able to participate in society, yeah I think it’s inappropriate — it’s inappropriate and it’s dangerous,” says Barbara Loe Fisher, cofounder and president of the National Vaccine Information Center, a group in Vienna, Va., that describes itself as “America’s Vaccine Safety Watchdog” and opposes forced vaccinations.
Worries go both ways
In some cases, it’s not the vaccinating parents who are worried. It’s those who’ve opted against immunizing and are afraid their kids might get sick from exposure to viruses used in certain vaccines.
“If I know of someone whose child has been recently vaccinated, I will share with them the fact that my children have not ever been and ask that they help me keep our children from making direct contact,” says Gretchen McMurry, 27, of Jefferson City, Tenn.
Brown says any such risk would be with “live attenuated” vaccines, which are made from weakened forms of the germs that cause infection.
“I have not seen any cases reported of vaccine-associated exposure causing disease in MMR or rotavirus,” she says. “There have been three documented cases of vaccine-associated exposure with chicken pox — three cases in 30 million doses given.”
Even if parents within the same social circle freely discussed vaccination status and schedules, it wouldn’t eliminate exposure concerns at airports, grocery stores or the mall, for example.
Amid all the controversy, some mothers on both sides of the vaccine divide say they just don’t worry too much about what the other side is doing.
Chantal Ouellette, 40, of Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada, hasn’t encountered instances of outright rejection because her kids aren’t vaccinated. When the subject comes up, though, she’s sometimes viewed as “weird, unresponsible or naïve.”
But it doesn’t really faze her. “It rubs off like water on a duck's feathers,” she says. “I have made an informed decision and I'm sticking to it.
Angela Corry, 33, of Shirley, N.Y., has faith that vaccinations are going to protect both of her girls, no matter who they encounter.
“I have no problem welcoming unvaccinated children into a play group, and I have no problem with them attending school,” she says. “Simply put, my children are vaccinated, the risk is minimal. I may not agree with [other] parents' choices, but there's no reason to hold that against the child.”
Jacqueline Stenson is a freelance writer in Los Angeles. A former senior health producer for msnbc.com, her work also has appeared in publications including the Los Angeles Times, Health, Shape, Women’s Health, Fit Pregnancy and Reuters Health.
© 2013 msnbc.com