Once A Vaccine Skeptic, This Mom Changed Her Mind

Feb 4, 2015
Originally published on February 5, 2015 8:16 am

The ongoing measles outbreak linked to Disneyland has led to some harsh comments about parents who don't vaccinate their kids. But Juniper Russo, a writer in Chattanooga, Tenn., says she understands those parents because she used to be one of them.

"I know what it's like to be scared and just want to protect your children, and make the wrong decisions," Russo says.

When her daughter Vivian was born, "I was really adamant that she not get vaccines," Russo says. "I thought that she was going to be safe without them and they would unnecessarily introduce chemicals into her body that could hurt her."

That's a view shared by many parents who choose not to vaccinate. And in Russo's case, it was reinforced by parents she met online.

"I had a lot of online acquaintances who claimed that their kids had become autistic because of vaccines," Russo says. "I got kind of swept up in that."

But fear of autism was only part of the reason Russo didn't want vaccines for her daughter. She says at that point in her life she identified strongly with what she calls "crunchy moms" who question mainstream medicine and things that aren't natural.

"They're the ones who breast-feed and cloth-diaper and co-sleep and all that stuff," Russo says. "And so much of who I was, was being a crunchy mom. At the time I thought that if I went along with what my pediatrician suggested ... I would be losing part of who I was."

Her daughter's pediatrician, though, kept talking to Russo about vaccines. And, over the next couple of years, she began to reconsider her position.

She also began to worry about Vivian. At 16 months old, her daughter still wasn't walking and her speech was odd.

Over the next year or so, Russo allowed the pediatrician to give her daughter a few shots — though not the vaccine against measles, mumps and rubella.

Then, when Vivian was nearly 3, Russo decided her daughter should get all her vaccines. By that time, Russo says, it was pretty clear that Vivian had autism, caused by something other than a vaccination.

Russo's story reveals a lot about why people fear vaccines, says David Ropeik, the author of How Risky Is It, Really? Why Our Fears Don't Always Match the Facts. For one thing, science often has little influence on what we are afraid of, Ropeik says.

"Fear, or the perception of risk, is subjective," Ropeik says. "It's a matter of how we feel about the facts we have, not just what the facts say.

"Also, our perceptions are often shaped by the communities we choose to join," Ropeik says. In Russo's case, that community was self-described "crunchy moms" who distrust mainstream medicine. But there are plenty of other communities with subgroups that reject vaccination for other reasons, he says.

"There's conservatism: I don't like government butting in. There's libertarianism: Leave me alone, I want to decide for myself. There's environmentalism, there's religion," Ropeik says.

And for a long time, Ropeik says, these subgroups didn't have to confront a downside to rejecting vaccines. "There is the sense that the diseases are largely gone, so why take even a small risk for no benefit?" he says.

Now that sort of thinking is getting harder to justify because "the diseases are back," Ropeik says. Equally important, the current measles outbreak involves Disneyland — "an iconic, happy, associated-with-nothing-bad-happening kind of place," he says.

That's helped generate a huge amount of publicity for this outbreak, even though it's still much smaller than an outbreak centered in Ohio that occurred just last year. And it's got some former vaccine skeptics thinking that perhaps diseases do pose a greater risk than vaccines, Ropeik says.

Russo hopes the current outbreak gets a lot of people thinking about protecting children.

Her daughter is 6 now and has grown into a quirky kid who loves Pokemon and reading and writing and cats, Russo says. The concern now is for Russo's son, who is just 6 months old.

"He's too young to have the measles vaccine, and I know that there's a chance that he could end up catching measles before he's old enough to get the vaccine," she says.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

We've been reporting on a measles outbreak in the country that's now spread to more than 100 people. Elsewhere on the program, we heard how stressing the safety of vaccines may not convince skeptical parents to get their kids immunized. NPR's Jon Hamilton explores the source of the skepticism.

JON HAMILTON, BYLINE: Juniper Russo says she understands parents who fear vaccines. She was one of them when her daughter Vivian was born.

JUNIPER RUSSO: I took her to the pediatrician, but I was really adamant that she not get vaccines because I thought that she was going be safe without them and that they would unnecessarily introduce, you know, chemicals into her body that could hurt her.

HAMILTON: Russo, a writer in Chattanooga, Tenn., says her views had been shaped in part by parents she met online.

RUSSO: I had a lot of online acquaintances who claimed that their kids had become autistic because of vaccines. And I got kind of swept up in that.

HAMILTON: But fear of autism was only part of the reason Russo didn't want vaccines for her daughter. She says at that point in her life, she identified strongly with mothers who are skeptical of mainstream medicine and things that aren't natural.

RUSSO: There's this whole subculture of so-called crunchy moms. You know, they're the ones who breast-feed and cloth-diaper and co-sleep and all that stuff. And so much of who I was, was being a crunchy mom. And at the time I thought that if I went along with what my pediatrician suggested that I would be losing part of who I was.

HAMILTON: Her daughter's pediatrician persisted though. And, over the next couple of years, Russo began to reconsider her position on vaccination. She also began to worry about her daughter. At 16 months, Vivian still wasn't walking and her speech was odd. Over the next year or so, Russo allowed the pediatrician to give her daughter a few shots, though not the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine with its purported link to autism. Then Russo made a decision.

RUSSO: The point when I decided to get her fully caught up on vaccines was between when she was 2 and a half to 3, which not coincidentally was also when I started to definitely realize that she did have autism and that her developmental delays weren't explainable by anything else.

HAMILTON: She also knew her daughter's autism could not have been caused by vaccination. Before her change of heart, Russo had a lot in common with other people who fear vaccines. David Ropeik is the author of "How Risky Is It, Really? Why Our Fears Don't Always Match The Facts." He says science often has little influence on what we are afraid of.

DAVID ROPEIK: Fear, the perception of risk, is subjective. It's a matter of how we feel about the facts that we have, not just what the facts say.

HAMILTON: And Ropeik says our perceptions are often shaped by the communities we choose to join. In Russo's case, that was crunchy moms who distrust mainstream medicine. But Ropeik says there are plenty of other communities with subgroups that reject vaccination for other reasons.

ROPEIK: There's conservatism - I don't like government butting in. There's libertarianism - leave me alone, I want to decide for myself. There's environmentalism. There's religion.

HAMILTON: For a long time, Ropeik says, people in countries like the U.S. didn't have to acknowledge a downside to rejecting vaccines.

ROPEIK: There is the sense that the diseases are largely gone - right? - because the vaccines work. And so why take even a small risk for no benefit?

HAMILTON: Ropeik says now that sort of thinking is getting harder to justify.

ROPEIK: The diseases are back, and what we have is Disneyland, an iconic, happy, associated-with-nothing-bad-happening kind of place - a high-profile place. And unlike a lot of other measles outbreaks over these last 15 years, this one's getting an awful lot more attention.

HAMILTON: Ropeik says that's causing a few skeptics to start thinking that the diseases may pose a greater risk than the vaccines. Juniper Russo says she hopes it's a lot of people. She's still a crunchy mom, but she no longer fears autism or vaccines. She says her daughter Vivian, who is 6 now, has grown into a quirky kid who loves Pokemon and reading and writing and cats. Russo's concern now is for her son who is just 6 months old.

RUSSO: So he's too young to have the measles vaccine. And I know there's a chance that he could end up catching measles before he's old enough to get the vaccine, and it would be the fault of parents, who like me, just made the wrong decisions.

HAMILTON: Even though they were trying to do the right thing. Jon Hamilton, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.