The accidental anti-vaxxers: a personal reflection by Jessie Channell

The scene, a GP waiting room in Moree, NSW, my mum, dad, and two brothers and sister there with me. I was trying not to be nervous. In the car on the way there my siblings and I had argued about who was going first. We arrived and my brother Jakeb was escorted down the hallway by the friendly country GP with my mother in tow. Barely 5 minutes later a high-pitched blood-curdling scream travelled down the hallway to reach us. My siblings and I fell silent and we anxiously looked at each other, wondering what was going on. Several screams later, Jakeb who was 4 years old, sprinted into the waiting room, having escaped from the GP’s office before getting his vaccination. Jakeb with desperation in his voice yelled “Don’t go in there, he’ll try and stab you!”. I’m not sure how my parents coaxed us to get our vaccinations after that, probably with the promise of ice cream, but that was the day my siblings and I were vaccinated. I was 10 years old.

I began my medical studies in 2016, and after a discussion on vaccination and the anti-vax movement it slowly dawned on me that my experience was very different to everyone else’s. My parents were the anti-vaxxers we were discussing in class. I was shocked, my mum is a loving mother, popular primary school teacher who coaches the softball team and my dad is a lifelong-surfer, who built me cubby houses and works as a school counsellor. Yet, they had chosen not to vaccinate me when I was born. I decided to put my conundrum to them.

Why did you chose to not vaccinate me when I was a baby?

Mum: I chose not to as I was worried about the adverse effects that some children had. I was in the health society and was pretty much no drugs, as you know no lollies either. Ha

Dad: At the time we had some trepidation about as we saw it, society’s seeming blind acceptance of the medical profession. You have to remember that it was pre-google time, so information was not easily available. Also the doctor/patient relationship was not an open one. Doctors more just treated patients rather than discussing health with their patients.

We also were products of the sixties and seventies, where natural processors and individual freedom were starting to be more part of people’s consciousness. This was in contrast to the previous generation’s tendency toward unquestioning acceptance of authority and desire to fit into the homogeneous group. I don’t think we were bad parents as such or strongly against having vaccinations. Rather we were attracted to less interventions and more natural approaches.

What made you change your mind and vaccinate me?

Mum: At that time we didn’t hear much from the government, that push became more vocal later on, hence getting you all done then.

Dad: Really mum and me were uninformed. I have a vague recollection of hearing a radio program about vaccinations and the evidence around it. I talked to mum about it, saying I felt that we should get you kids vaccinated. Mum was agreeable as she had been mulling over vaccinations with you guys now at school.

What advice would you give today to new parents who are unsure if they should vaccinate their babies?

Mum: For new parents I would say read the documents that show correct evidence for and against vaccinations.

I realised after interviewing them, that my perspective of anti-vaxxers was incorrect. I had wrongly assumed that anti-vaxxers were anti-science and anti-government. But that’s not the case. Parents just want to do the best by their child. We shouldn’t expect people to blindly accept the advice of governments. History has shown us this can be dangerous. Vaccination groups and government need to have an open discussion with parents, where the risks and benefits are presented in an easy to understand format, whilst not using fear, or being overly pollyannaish.

I for one am happy to now be vaccinated as the current evidence shows that while there are risks involved in vaccinating children, the risk of contracting the disease itself is much higher. This story has a happy ending, I didn’t die of a vaccination preventable disease, and what’s more my ‘accidental’ anti-vaxx parents considered the facts and made an informed decision.

Jessie and parents on her wedding day, 2018