‘Growing up unvaccinated’, Amy Parker’s story of an idyllic childhood blighted by repeated bouts of illness, has become an Internet sensation.
Despite being raised by health-conscious parents in the English countryside, eating home-grown foods and getting plenty of exercise, she was regularly sick – Amy picked up measles, mumbles, rubella, whooping cough, chickenpox and, in her 20s, precancerous HPV.
She now ensures that her own children are vaccinated and encourages other parents to do likewise. Amy says while it is encouraging to see parents embrace the evidence for breastfeeding and healthy eating, it is “incredibly frustrating” to find a minority of parents have a blind-spot when it comes to the science behind immunisation.
Her story has struck a chord with parents around the world and has been picked up by Voices for Vaccines and parenting blogs, as well as Australian news websites and major US outlets including Slate and Jezebel – it has even been translated into French.
How did it happen?
It all started with a Facebook post. When Amy Parker saw her friend say he wouldn’t be vaccinating his new baby, she felt compelled to weigh in.
“The reasons he was giving for choosing not to vaccinate were completely unfounded and easily debunked. They harked back to the false idea that vaccines cause serious illness and that you were poisoning your child with formaldehyde and mercury,” she told Vaccines Today.
Then a mother of two (her third child has just arrived!), Amy delved into the science behind vaccination – and the myths that persist about the value of vaccines. “But it was very difficult to argue my position with science and facts when the responses were so emotional,” she says.
Amy concluded that the robust evidence supporting immunisation needed to be supported by the compelling story of her own childhood experience. The result was a detailed Facebook post meant for friends and family. What happened next came as a total surprise.
“A nurse friend of mine asked if he could post my note onto a pro-vaccine Facebook page where Karen from Voices for Vaccines read it and then contacted me,” she says.
Voices for Vaccines published the article and it spread like wildfire, read by hundreds of thousands of parents.
“I’m quite amazed at how it’s gone viral,” says Amy who has been inundated with media queries since her story was published. Including several from us…
Read: Growing up unvaccinated and see below for our interview with Amy
Vaccines Today: What prompted you to become an advocate for vaccination?
Amy Parker: Around two years ago I ended up in an online debate on a friend’s Facebook about vaccines. At the time my position on vaccines was definitely about protecting herd immunity and protecting my children from suffering, I knew little about the science behind them so I started to look into it and into the claims that anti vaccine friends were making.
By doing this I discovered several science based pages that helped me make a truly informed decision about vaccines. I looked at the anti-vaccine pages too but felt that it wasn’t scientific enough for me and was based on anecdotes and paranoia.
It was very difficult to argue my position with science and facts when the responses were so emotional, so I wrote the piece as a note to my friends on my Facebook and hoped that my anecdotal evidence would make them question their beliefs or at least clarify why I was arguing with them.
Vaccines Today: How did it go global?
A nurse friend of mine asked if he could post my note onto a pro-vaccine Facebook page where Karen from Voices for Vaccines read it and then contacted me. It was not my intention to do anything more than open up a discussion with friends but the initial positive reaction made me confident in allowing V4V to publish it.
I’m quite amazed at how it’s gone viral but for my own sanity I’m avoiding the commentary, with such an emotionally charged subject personal attacks are expected.
Vaccines Today: Do you find it frustrating that some parents who accept the evidence in favour of, say, breastfeeding – and even cite the science behind climate change – reject vaccination?
Amy Parker: Incredibly frustrating. But I think that here in the developed world we have quickly forgotten the severity of once common illnesses, ironically because of their near eradication by vaccinations.
And of course there is a mass leaning towards ‘nature = good; man-made = bad’. People have a distorted nostalgia for the bygone days of living ‘close to nature’ and green issues and natural parenting issues are tied in with that phenomenon.
I think this is more to do with where people get their information from than anything. Many sites and books that promote choices such as breastfeeding or healthy eating also advocate going ‘all natural’, which includes avoiding vaccines and, to some degree, evidence-based medicine in general. It’s completely illogical to me.
But who wants to sit and read scientific journals and peer-reviewed papers with somewhat inaccessible language when you could read a sensationalist, easy to read article and react emotionally?
There are some sites in particular who post conspiracy alongside facts or they distort figures to fit in with their agenda. I’m not naming names but they are responsible for most of the misinformation I was finding in my feed.
Vaccines Today: Where do you find information?
Amy Parker: Thankfully there are also sceptical sites which are informative and entertaining and easy to read. My personal favourite is skepticalraptor.com. He uses references. “If it’s not referenced it’s not worth reading” is something my psychology tutor used to say and I stick with that when it comes to science.
And then there’s the basic reality: breastfeeding is nice, it’s a bonding experience and the benefits are obvious; looking after our planet by recycling and making greener choices makes us feel good and part of something bigger, but sticking needles in babies as a preventative? Not quite so pleasant.
I often wonder if vaccines were administered differently whether there would be so many people deciding against them.
Vaccines Today: Why do some parents who feel strongly about healthy eating hesitate to vaccinate?
Amy Parker: Chemicals. The amount of times I’ve heard people go on about the chemicals in vaccines and how they are not natural is amazing.
There was a meme going round about the amount of formaldehyde in a pear being more than in a vaccine and I honestly read a comment that said… ‘buy organic then’. People seem to lack an understanding about chemicals, their toxicity and their functions and most of all, their occurrence in nature. To some all chemicals are nasty and unnecessary, like additives and E numbers.
The other reason is the belief that eating healthily prevents you from getting ill. I totally advocate healthy eating but to presume it can put a barrier up to protect you from contagious diseases, or can ‘boost your immune system’ to fight off antigens is not enough for me to take the risk.
The same people who believed that our diets were healthier ‘back in the day’ seem to forget that those days were full of people dying from now-preventable disease. Why not healthy food and vaccines? The best of both.
Vaccines Today: You’ve just welcomed a new baby to your family. Congratulations! May we ask whether you’ll be following the recommended vaccine schedule?
Absolutely. I had the flu vaccine whilst pregnant and the pertussis vaccine. I am breastfeeding at the moment but with the resurgence in cases of whooping cough and measles locally I don’t want to take the risk of delaying.
Personally I wouldn’t spread them out more than necessary either as I believe it would increase the association of the clinic and pain. I don’t want my child to be scared of the doctor, fear is a killer.
Vaccines Today: Given that you were not vaccinated, does your own mother support your approach?
Amy Parker: Yes, this is something I feel that is missing from my article but I did bring up in the comments on my original Facebook note. My mum isn’t anti-vaccine, she was given bad advice which fed on her natural fear as a new mum in a time not long after the thalidomide scandal.
She changed her mind about vaccinations later because of her experiences with me and my sister who also experienced mumps and pertussis. My brother is vaccinated and I had my polio and TB vaccines as a teenager.
My mum is fully supportive of my decision to vaccinate and as she’s grown older she’s suspended her belief in most quackery, except ghosts – she’s never going to let that one go; ghosts and Reiki.