Middle class mothers and MMR


Those who have ventured onto any mothers’ forums will know that the two topics most likely to end in tears, tend to be those surrounding maternal choices, such as breast versus bottle, methods of childbirth and whether or not to vaccinate.

It’s hardly surprising as these are all choices that every parent has to face at some point or another, we are emotionally invested in our side of the debate, we’ve given the matter considerable thought and are convinced that our choices are the right ones, that have been taken in the best interests of our child. Part of the nature of the human condition is that we all too often seek validation in the opinions and actions of other people and are therefore unable to cope when disagreement rears its head. A decision that runs contrary to our own, implicitly undermines our own judgement – what could be more emotive than the question of whether or not we have done the right thing by our children?

Before I go any further, I’ll set my stall out, in order  to invite condemnation/approbation on myself as necessary. All of my children have been vaccinated according to the NHS schedule of immunisations.

The issue of whether or not to vaccinate one’s children, is related to that of the pro-life cause. Rubella in pregnant women can cause miscarriage, stillbirth as well as the following birth defects – hearing loss, brain damage, cataracts and heart problems. Measles can prove equally dangerous. Mumps can cause a higher risk of miscarriage. Furthermore the MMR II Vaccine used in the UK was derived and developed from foetal tissue. Whilst the vaccine itself does not contain foetal tissue, we are not unwittingly injecting children with cells from aborted babies, the cell lines used to create the vaccines were derived from two aborted babies. This is, therefore morally problematic. This does not mean that Catholics should not have their children vaccinated, the Pontifical Academy for Life issued a statement to the effect that innocent children must not be put at risk, particularly in the case of a disease such as rubella, and thus vaccines can be used if there is no available alternative, however parents have a moral responsibility to use these where possible and also to continue to put pressure on the pharmaceutical industry. Here is a link to a website containing a list of which vaccines are derived from aborted foetal tissue and alternatives, most of which are not available in the UK. Sadly I was only made aware of the ethical difficulties involved in the manufacture of the vaccine, a few months ago, the day after my third child had received her MMR shot.

Cristina Odone wrote a particularly irksome piece yesterday, which discussed the current measles outbreak in Swansea, Wales and laid the blame squarely at the door of the middle-classes who, Odone argues, believe that their offspring are more precious and special than everyone else’s and so don’t vaccinate. The article displayed, to my mind, some unacceptable class prejudice, lampooning middle-class consumer choices as springing from a sense that they are somehow special and stating that the middle-classes secretly loved the MMR/autism scare as it validated their sense that their offspring are better than everyone else’s.

The article particularly stung for a number of reasons, not only did I recognise some of my preferred consumer choices listed, but also I was one of the parents who agonised over the decision over whether or not to vaccinate. Actually I think Cristina was entirely misguided, the reason that if I could afford to, I would shop at John Lewis, or buy the childrens’ clothes from Boden or Joules, is not because I think their products are particularly special or luxurious, they don’t pander to narcissism, but put simply, those brands tend to be understated, not especially flashy (although in the case of children’s clothes, distinctive) but mainly because they are of good quality and so last. One knows that John Lewis’ customer service is of a consistently high standard, they stand by their guarantees and treat customers well; likewise with the children’s clothes retailers, products tend to have a much longer shelf-life than their cheaper alternatives. So in the case of the children, a piece of clothing bought 9 years ago, is still in pristine condition on its 4th baby. Nothing to do with whether or not I feel my children to be special, it’s more a question of economy.

There were other unfair generalisations (both to middle and working classes) such as stating that the middle class tend to prevent their children from taking risks, and they were more likely to read or talk to their children and nurture them intellectually or feed them the requisite 5 a day portions of fruit and veg. Whilst its true that income can sometimes be a barrier to eating healthily, it doesn’t automatically follow that those on low incomes do not give their children a good diet or neglect to read or talk to them. Having money is no indicator of ability to be a good parent, this is an attitude that should be challenged.

Most parents, regardless of social class, believe their children to be special and wish to protect them from harm. All of us were alarmed by the MMR scare, which received widespread national publicity. Whilst every activity in life carries innate risks, in the case of immunisations, one is having to actively undertake a risk balancing exercise – taking one’s child to be injected requires one to be pro-active, in the sense of having to make the appointment and undertake the journey to the doctors. I suggest that this is one of the reasons behind the decline in the vaccine uptake, particularly in Swansea which isn’t noted for being an affluent middle-class area. Parents need to be wholly convinced that this is the right decision for their child, the newborn baby jabs are scheduled between the ages of 8 and 16 weeks, when one is in the post-natal baby haze, checking the baby every 2 minutes and it’s easy enough for the health visitor or midwife to jolly one off to the clinic, especially when the diseases vaccinated against are as serious as meningitis. It’s every parent’s instinct to want to protect their child from harm and thus most people don’t need much persuasion when it comes to vaccinating their fragile little newborn.

By the time the child has reached 13 months, the age at which MMR is administered, equilibrium has been recovered. People need active encouragement that there is an imperative to vaccinate. For people of my generation, who remember having mumps and German Measles as children, these diseases seem of little consequence, despite the fact we are told, that they have now mutated into something much nastier. The success of the MMR vaccine hinges solely on the fear of measles, which can have devastating effects, especially if one’s immune system is already compromised in some way. My sister had measles as a child and almost died by all accounts. For most parents it’s the risk of measles, versus the risk of the MMR and so passivity or procrastination often seems the best option.

With the withdrawal of the patents for the single vaccines, parents now have very little option, it’s either all or nothing. Whilst the arguments against the single vaccines are valid, i.e. it requires mutliple appointments which most parents don’t attend and there is the risk that a child could catch one of the diseases between vaccinations, to my mind, the government’s decision to remove this choice seems authoritarian and spiteful. No-one is demanding that the NHS gives single jabs, but there was no need to remove the option for private patients. For those who might argue about the difficulties of multiple appointments, I would argue that anyone who is concerned enough to seek out the option of single jabs, will not be taking a slapdash attitude towards their child’s health. Single jabs might well have reduced the severity of the outbreak – we’ll never know.

Andrew Wakefield has been thoroughly humiliated and discredited, but that does not mean that parents who decide against MMR should be vilified as selfish or ignorant. There are still legitimate concerns about MMR, in that many parents have horrifying testimony of the immediate effects of the vaccination upon their child, such as temporary paralysis. From my perspective, all of my children have been absolutely fine in the long-term, but they have all been extremely fractious and ill-tempered in the aftermath. But then again, when the MMR is administered, it’s not on its own. They get the MMR in one thigh and the Hib,  Pneumococcal (PCV), and Meningitis C in the other. So that’s 6 doses of vaccine all in one dose. No-one is suggesting that it’s not safe, however all vaccination is counter-intuitive and it seems a heck of a lot to inject into a little 12 or 13 month old child, who may not even be walking. When my eldest had her MMR booster, aged 5, she described how it stung and burned as it went into her. Apparently that’s a common sensation. So it’s pretty tough on parents who have to watch their child receiving a painful injection, hoping that its going to protect them from a much worse evil, and yet knowing that many people believe this to be harmful. Most of us pray that it’s going to be alright and not cause them any ill-effects in the short term, though it’s hard when your child is spiking a temperature as a direct result of their immunisations.

As Catholics, we are not statists, we don’t believe that the government or state can dictate the precise healthcare or education of our chidden. The story of my eldest’s vaccinations is a cautionary tale. Shortly before they were due to be administered I read about the thiomersal scare, in one of the newspapers. Thiomersal being the mercury based preservative, which was being linked to nerve damage and autism. (This has since been discounted in a study). I therefore specifically requested that my child received Thiomersal free injections. The Health Visitor agreed and made note, informing that since I had requested this, then my daughter would receive the vaccines. What would have happened had I not requested, I asked. “She would have received the version with the thiomersal in”, said the Health Visitor. “This is being phased out, we are switching to the new Thiomersal free vaccine, but we need to use up our stocks, so we are only giving out the new version to those who specifically ask”.  Furthermore, when my eldest was vaccinated as a baby, she was given a 3-in-1 injection. This has now been ramped up to a 5-in-1, together with a separate dose of PCV. As I said, it seems like a lot of pathogens to be loading onto a delicate 8 week old immune system, especially when babies can vary so much in terms of size and weight.

Understandably, the authorities charged with public health take a utilitarian attitude towards the population. Most children will be alright as a result of their vaccinations and they stress that we have a civic duty to protect the weakest. That’s all very well and good, but what when it’s your child who is the one affected, as people claim they have been?

We shouldn’t rush to pillory those who don’t vaccinate their children, or try to label them (I’m guilty of this, I live in Green Brighton which has a very low uptake) because though passivity is often the easiest course of action when faced with a dilemma (it’s easier to do nothing), I know of many highly intelligent, well educated and medically literate folk who have not vaccinated. It is impossible to make a fully informed choice because as @battlementclare, a qualified midwife notes, “there have been no rigorous long term studies into the effects of hyper stimulating the immature neonatal immune system with multiple foreign antigens & adjuvants known to be neurotoxic. I have to wonder whether, in protecting children against some diseases, we are increasing their likelihood of developing auto immune disorders later.” This is all true, the decision to vaccinate centres around a balancing of risks, with the additional factor that there are ethical problems inherent for Catholics in using vaccines derived from aborted foetal cell lines.

One can’t actually do right for doing wrong on this issue, my feeling has been to vaccinate, not least due to living in areas which have experienced measles outbreaks, but every time it has been with a heavy heart. After all no-one, regardless of their social class, (I suspect many of Cristina’s middle class stereotypes would probably fall into the new ‘precariat ‘ in any event) wants to inject their child with something that they have heard on the news or read in the newspapers, or anecdotally from a friend, could do their child harm. This is what Andrew Wakefield tapped into quite so successfully.

But on another note, Cristina’s article, irritating as it was, carries lessons for those of us fighting to get our point of view acknowledged and acted upon, in areas such as pro-life or the defence of marriage. It initially made me very angry as I perceived myself to be the object of undisguised scorn and contempt, identifying a little with some of her use of consumer brands, and having once being described as “all white teeth and Boden”. I guess I experienced some of what same sex couples feel when they read various pieces of unkind polemic, such as that written by notorious journalists or unkind bloggers, attacking people and their motivations, by virtue of their lifestyle. It’s a reminder to us all to play the ball, not the man, if we’re talking about why marriage shouldn’t need to change, there is no need to launch into a personal attack upon people of goodwill.

The same applies with abortion. Whilst we should always condemn the act, we need to understand and engage with the reasons behind abortion, as well as exercise understanding and compassion to those women who have aborted, instead of casting scorn, doubt and shame upon their motivations or lifestyle, particularly if we wish them to engage and have a conversion of heart. Just like Cristina’s piece on MMR, instead of considering the very good reasons that exist when it comes to vaccination, I was left feeling defensive for having worried about it, angry and not inclined to think well of Odone. It was highly counter-productive.

Ultimately every single parent is well aware of their child’s flaws or shortcomings, but we still love them fiercely and protectively no matter what and want to keep them safe from harm, whether we are members of the royal family, or on the very margins of society. Every parent is entitled to think their child is special, it’s called love and is what keeps the world turning. I’m sure there’s a metaphor about God in there somewhere.

All white teeth, Boden and middle class, but not a piece of rocket in sight... "The Vicar's Wife give her kids fruit shoots"!
All white teeth, Boden and ‘middle class’, but not a piece of rocket in sight…
“The Vicar’s Wife gives her kids fruit shoots”!

2 thoughts on “Middle class mothers and MMR

  1. It’s s nasty article by Christina Odone isn’t it! Andrew Wakefield didn’t play to middle class smugness he frightened all parents. People who could afford single jabs (myself included) generally got them for their children and those who couldn’t either risked the multiple jab or didn’t get their children vaccinated.

    The only vaccine I’ve turned down for my children was HPV which was offered to my 12 year old son via his school. I’ll review that decision when he’s 14.

    1. Pointing this out got me an unfollow on Twitter from Nadine Dorries who said I’d misrepresented Cristina and shouldn’t attack people on my own side. It seemed to me that it was in fact Cristina who was doing this.

      Mumps was not available as a single jab in 2004 and where I lived at the time was experiencing an outbreak so I had little other choice.

      What I find terribly patronizing is the idea that parents who were left frightened were in some way ignorant or above themselves. When the autism scare broke, the Internet was still in its infancy, people didn’t have the equipment or skills to do the research. Whilst the data is now available not every parent is able to meticulously sift through and critically analyse risk and its unfair to expect them to do so.

      Any intuitive mistrust of the NHS or nagging doubts is written off as ignorance. That seems to me, unfair. Parents are stuck between a rock and a hard place.

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