I’m 22 years old and recently found out that I haven’t had any of my vaccinations. I’ve always known that I grew up in an unconventional household. My mother was my age when I was born, so my nana ended up playing a huge role in raising me, and I lived with her for most of my childhood. My grandma is a strong believer in alternative forms of medicine and recently, amid the media controversy surrounding anti-vaxx celebrity parents, it struck me that it was more than likely that I hadn’t received any of my vaccinations as a child.
I remember not getting my HPV vaccine. I went to a girls' grammar school, so the day of the first jab was one of dramatic mid-assembly faints and aching left arms. I remember being the only girl in my school not getting it done and waltzing around feeling smug that I didn’t have to endure an injection, until a girl in my class told me with a strong sense of teenage self-righteousness that I was more than likely going to get cervical cancer.
The landscape of the anti-vaxx parent was massively different when I was growing up compared to today. In 1998, the medical journal The Lancet published a study which implied a link between the MMR vaccine and a 'new syndrome' of autism. This study terrified parents, who were otherwise trooping into doctors' surgeries to have their kids vaccinated against measles, mumps and rubella. Over the following decade multiple studies actively disproved the study, accusing the lead publisher Andrew Wakefield of 'ethical violations' and 'scientific misrepresentation' – yet the paper still sent ripples through the British healthcare system, and between 2001 and 2003 the UK saw a sharp rise in cases of measles. Fast-forward 15 years, and the World Health Organization (WHO) reported an alarming 82,596 cases of measles in Europe between January and October 2018. The WHO has claimed 'vaccine hesitancy' to be one of the top 10 threats to global health in 2019.
Nowadays, people attribute the rise of anti-vaxx controversy to celebrity influence and social media fake news. Celebrities like Kat Von D, Alicia Silverstone and most recently, Jessica Biel have publicly spoken about their views on the matter. Views which, more than likely, held more sway than Chief Medical Officer Professor Dame Sally Davies urging parents not to be swept up in the 'fake news' anti-vaccination stories circulating on social media. In 2018, only 87% of children in the UK received their MMR vaccine, which fell short of the WHO’s recommendation that 95% of the population be vaccinated in order to ensure 'herd immunisation'.
But the now former Dr Wakefield (he had his medical credentials stripped in 2010) published his study in 1998, a whole two years after I was born, so I can’t attribute my lack of vaccinations to that scare.
I spoke to my nana, a 68-year-old Yorkshire woman, to get to the bottom of why she chose not to have me vaccinated as a child. "I grew up with the backdrop of the thalidomide scandal," she tells me. "When I was a teenager, women were being given tablets for morning sickness and then thousands of babies were born missing limbs, and it was then that I realised that medical science isn’t infallible." She reminds me that back in the 1950s, almost all the adults around her smoked cigarettes and didn’t think it would have an adverse effect on their health. "I’ve always been of a mind that if the crowd’s going one way, I want to explore what the minority of people are doing, as I often find that’s where the truth lies." She goes on to say that she’s in no way averse to medical advancement; she’s never prohibited the use of antibiotics or visiting the hospital when we’re sick. She believes that the fundamental science of immunisation has prevented otherwise fatal illnesses across the world. It’s the mass-production element of commercial pharmaceutical drugs that sparks her distrust in vaccinations.
I ask my nan about her motivation behind this decision. "It’s not a black and white issue, and all I have is my informed opinion based on what I’ve learned. I loved you so much and just couldn’t bear to put you at risk." She reminds me that I’ve made it to the ripe old age of 22 without any real medical complications, a fact I know makes me incredibly lucky.
Social media’s anti-vaxx community might be loud but in the UK at least, it certainly isn’t very large. A study carried out earlier this year by Public Health England (PHE) found that only 9% of parents had seen, read or heard about something that would leave them doubting their choice to vaccinate their child, down from 33% in 2002. PHE’s Chief Executive Duncan Selbie encouraged NHS workers to "speak confidently about the value of vaccines" in order to "leave the public in no doubt that they are safe and save lives".
Dr Mary Ramsay, the head of immunisation at PHE, ensured us that they are working closely with staff in GP offices to improve vaccine uptake. "Even one child missing their vaccine is one too many as it leaves them at risk of potentially life threatening diseases," she said. "If you are in any doubt about your child’s vaccination status, ask your GP – it’s never too late to get protected."
As I write this, I still haven’t been vaccinated. I was finding it incredibly hard to act against the advice of the woman I love and respect so much, but learning how measles is on the rise across the UK and worldwide alarms me, and I’d hate to contribute to this problem. Living in a city, I am in close proximity to thousands of strangers every day and my overarching concern is of putting someone with a weaker immune system at risk.
For this reason I will be getting vaccinated (sorry Nan), but I definitely intend to maintain the sense of thinking outside the box that she so lovingly instilled in me.