Yep, I’m the guy you’re looking for. The Unicorn… or so I’ve been called.
First a little context. My father is a doctor (though not a medical one) and has always been, in general, a skeptic of the medical community. I was born in the 1970’s and my father was of the opinion (I think he learned it in school, I guess, I’m not sure) that vaccinations were not necessary. So, as a kid, I was never injected like the other kids. It was one of those childhood experiences that I never had to deal with.
Every time I changed schools (daycare, elementary school, high school, college), my father would request in writing an exemption from vaccination based on religious belief. If the school refused, he would write a more aggressive letter that spelled out the state laws about religious exemptions to vaccinations and suggested that any further study of the case would threaten our religious freedoms. (By the way, today you can find on the Internet pages with the verses and dogmas that members of all religions can use to justify their refusal. Are you a Lutheran and don’t want to get vaccinated? Well, you can use *this* verse to justify your refusal of vaccinations).
In short, this is how I grew up and was educated: vaccinations are silly, unnecessary and dangerous. I once did a report for health class in high school. I debated it with my entire English class in college and had heated discussions with friends. Whenever a romantic relationship became serious and we discussed having children, I always made it clear that I rejected my children’s vaccination. Naturally, it was a point of friction for many women.
I ended up marrying a health professional. We both wanted to have children and she knew how I felt about it. (I have no idea what she was thinking at the time; I should ask her.) ) When we tried to have children, we hadn’t agreed on vaccinations for our children. In fact, when she got pregnant, we still hadn’t reached a consensus! But not for lack of interest.
In a few months our baby would be born and we needed to come to an agreement. We debated all the time: me with an alternative medicine perspective and her with medical knowledge. She was able to answer all my questions with answers that I could not refute. She had an explanation for all the “evidence” my father used to strengthen his position. (There was nothing new; it was the same arguments you always see if someone uses science against an anti-vaccine.
But there was one question that became fundamental to me. That question kept the whole debate going:
Why didn’t I ever get sick?
I was never vaccinated against mumps, polio, rubella, smallpox, tetanus, etc. So why did I never get sick? Well, anti-vaccines and science have different answers.
Antivaccines say that I was exposed to these diseases at some point, but my body fought them off. This happens now, they say, because we know more about nutrition and healing, which means our immune system is stronger than when these diseases were common.
Science, on the other hand, answers the question with the opposite argument: that I was never exposed to any of these diseases because everyone around me had been vaccinated and therefore they did not carry diseases. A disease cannot spread if people are immune.
(Here comes the answer to your question:)
Somehow, I learned about antibody titers (
), probably by my wife, which allows you to check how many antibodies a person has for a particular disease. Having many antibodies means that the person was exposed to the disease, that his or her body developed defenses, and that he or she is therefore immune to it. Few (or no) antibodies means that the person has no defense against the disease.
For me, this opened the way to a solution. I would get tested. They would test my blood for antibodies to diseases I hadn’t been vaccinated for. This test would show what beliefs were right. If I had the antibodies, then my father was always right: I was exposed to polio, rubella, etc., but my body developed its defenses, and I never realized it. If I didn’t have the antibodies, then science was right and the only reason I didn’t get sick was because I was lucky enough not to have been exposed to them.
I went to the hospital where I had gone before to treat poison ivy rashes, or to examine a sting or something else, and told them my story.
The doctor was fascinated and immediately ordered the tests to get the results. He had to send the samples to different laboratories because none of them could test for all the diseases.
Finally, I’m up to date with my vaccinations now. Even tetanus (and you?). And my kids are catching up on theirs. It makes my head spin when I see people posting anti-vaccine stuff, but I don’t make fun of them. I now completely accept that the anti-vaccine arguments are nonsense, but I humbly remember that I was one of them recently. And I tell some people this story (though not my father) but they haven’t changed their minds.
Sometimes I think that hearing the right thing is not enough; you have to hear the right thing at the right time. For me, I guess, the right time was when I was having a kid and I was terrified of making the wrong decision.