One of the recent measles clusters in the U.S. began in 2008 when the child of a family on a visit Europe contracted the virus there and carried it back to the U.S. The child's mother, who selectively vaccinates her children, spoke to TIME on condition of anonymity, fearing a backlash from her community. She asked that her name and her region not be identified. We will call her Jane.
Jane says her 10-year-old son starting showing symptoms of the measles swollen lymph nodes and a fever about 10 days after returning to the States. He seemed to recover, and she sent him back to school after a few days. The following day the boy developed a rash. He visited his doctor, but the measles diagnosis did not come for about a week. In the meantime the boy had again returned to school, carrying the disease into a school with a population of children whose parents choose not to immunize. All told, 12 children between 10 months old and nine years old contracted the measles at the school, the doctor's office and other nearby schools.
Jane says she did not know her son had been exposed to the measles while visiting Europe; and she didn't know that her son was infectious. She and her husband select vaccinations for their children based on their age, their body's ability to fight the infection, and the risks of the vaccination. Her infected son was not inoculated against measles. "We analyze the diseases and we analyze the risk of disease, and that's how my husband and I make our decision about what vaccines to give our children."
She adds about the outbreak, "I feel horrible for those children and their parents, but I want to protect all children from harm. And so by making sure there is more research done, we can help all children."
Vaccines in general are a good thing, she says, but the problem is in the ingredients. Many vaccines contain mercury, formaldehyde, and aluminum, Jane argues. Thimerosal, which contains a mercury derivative, was once a common preservative in vaccines, she says. "This just can't be good for you. Injecting yourself with aluminum can't be good."
Epidemiologists and doctors advocate vaccinations, arguing that the sera are safe. They also point out that beyond the safety of individuals, there is a demographic argument for vaccinations, with groups of people immune to disease creating geographic brakes to the potential spread of disease.
Jane says she became curious about vaccines after she took her first child for a series of vaccinations at four months old. "It felt like they were giving her four shots. It felt like it was too much. The next day she had blood in her stool and it freaked me out. The doctor said 'Well, maybe it was the shots, but we don't know.'"
The experience prompted Jane to research vaccinations. She read widely on the CDC website and in medical journals. She read vaccine inserts published by the vaccine manufacturers and she talked to pediatricians. In the end, she and her husband decided to choose certain vaccinations and create their own shot schedule based on their children's age and ability to withstand disease.
Because her children are healthy and well-nourished, Jane said they will sail through childhood diseases such as measles and chicken pox without trouble and get lifelong immunity from the exposure. And she said, because the U.S. is a relatively healthy first-world country with a well-functioning health care system, she feels safe in making the choice to vaccinate selectively. "Looking at the diseases mumps, measles and rubella in a country like the U.S.... it doesn't tend to be a problem," Jane said. "Children will do fine with these diseases in a developed country that has good nutrition. And because I live in a country where the norm is vaccine, I can delay my vaccines."
Still, Jane says she was surprised by the number of calls she got from friends who wanted to bring their unvaccinated children over to play with her kids while they were infectious. Like Jane, they see getting the measles as far healthier than the vaccine. She said the recent measles outbreak in her region prompted her to do more research. That work has made her even more certain that she and her husband are choosing wisely to be very selective about vaccinations. "This is a difficult choice for parents; choose the vaccine or choose the disease. I have chosen the disease by not vaccinating."
The family's planned travel to third-world countries prompted her to research other vaccinations. Her children are now vaccinated against tetanus, diphtheria, polio, Hepatitis B and typhoid fever because the risks of those diseases overshadow the risks of complications from the vaccines. Jane said she hopes parents will take a more active role in deciding if and when to vaccinate their children. "I want parents to educate themselves," she said. "Be educated. Vaccination is in general a great thing, but we need more research. More and more parents are saying something's not right. They know their children. We need to listen."