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Vaccination Persuasion: An Interview With Dr. Stephen Hales

I’m so sick of sickness. At night, there is the constant gurgle of the humidifier, the only thing that seems to help with Ruby’s recurrent bouts of croup. Throughout the day, there is a lingering smell of Lysol, which I spray with wanton excess and irrational frequency on nearly every surface in the vain hope of keeping some of us healthy. It doesn’t work. We have had three stomach viruses since September (three separate viruses, for a total of eight actual infections household-wise). Ruby and I have both just recovered from strep. We’ve all had off-and-on colds. I know being sick is a part of life with one kid in day care and two in grade school, but wow, I am ready for spring and fresh air and – fingers crossed – a respite from all of these germs and illnesses. 

In between wiping noses and sanitizing remote controls and pouring pink penicillin down Ruby’s throat twice a day, I have been reading the news about measles. And I’m getting so angry. Seriously: so angry. The news that broke yesterday about five measles cases just outside of Chicago, all in infants too young to be vaccinated, makes me absolutely furious.

I know vaccines can be scary. I don’t think there is a parent among us who hasn’t hesitated, at least for a moment, before signing that form at the doctor’s office. It’s terrifying to think you could be making the wrong decision on behalf of the person you love most in all the world. The stakes are just so high, and it’s understandable, at least sort of, for parents to think that maybe they should forgo the risk from the shot, particularly if they don’t have any clear of idea of what measles really looks like. (I certainly don’t. I didn’t have measles; I don’t know anyone who did have measles.) Then, too, I sort of went the other way for a moment: “Chicken pox? I had chicken pox, and it was terrible, but it certainly wasn’t fatal. Do I really need to vaccinate against that?”

But I snapped out of it. I took a deep breath; I realized I trust my doctors and science; and more than anything, I thought about how much I hate to see my kids sick, even mildly sick (when Georgia had roseola, I was scared out of my mind; when Ruby’s eardrum ruptured, I would have done anything to take away her pain); and I signed the form. Chicken pox is an illness, not some kind of rite of passage, for God’s sake. And although there are certainly cases of vaccine reactions, neither of my kids so much as ran a fever.

“Why does it matter?” my dad asked me after hearing a story on NPR. “Why do people care so much what other people do with their kids?”

I am the first one to clamor for an end to the Mommy Wars. I am all about extended breastfeeding, but I don’t care even a little bit about my formula-feeding friends. Cry-It-Out felt awful to me, but it certainly worked for a bunch of my friends, and yes, I am a little jealous of how well their kids sleep. Home-schooling? Not for me, but good for you if you want to do it! Working out of the home is a necessity for me both in terms of my budget and my sanity, but I am delighted for my friends who want to and are able to stay home with their kids. I have friends who have their kids on strict vegan diets and friends who feed their kids a steady diet of bologna and McNuggets. I am all about no judgment when it comes to what other people do with their kids. But vaccinations aren’t a personal issue at this point; they are a public health issue. Your unvaccinated child could potentially get someone else’s too-young-to-be-vaccinated child sick. And for what?

“Vaccines are safe and effective,” said Dr. Stephen Hales, a longtime and beloved New Orleans pediatrician, who also happens to be my kids’ pediatrician.

I love Hales Pediatrics. They have been fielding my at-least-weekly neurotic phone calls since we moved here when Ruby was 13 months old; they saw me through the most horrifying day I spent as a parent, the day we thought Ruby might have a brain tumor; and they met Georgia in the hospital when she was just hours old. It is seriously the best pediatric practice in the city, as far as I’m concerned, and I recommend it to anyone who asks. So please know that I am not unbiased when I talk about Dr. Hales or his practice. I value his advice and his multiple decades of experience and knowledge as both a parent and a doctor.

And as someone who spends a lot of time in his waiting room with my kiddos, I called him to talk to me about whether his office has a policy against seeing kids who are unvaccinated.

“If we have parents who are reluctant to vaccinate, we are willing to work with them to try to address their concerns,” he said. “We can spread the vaccines out over a longer period of time or give one shot at a time, but we try to encourage parents to vaccinate, and in the vast majority of cases, we achieve our goal.

“If we have parents come in who are trying to pick a practice, like before a child has been born, and they say they are not planning to vaccinate, and we can’t find common ground, we usually suggest that they find another physician. It’s a matter of goodness of fit. If we see the world that differently, we’d be at odds over other things, and nobody benefits from that. It’s harder with existing patients. For goodness’ sake, no one wants to be at that impasse with a family. But we as doctors so carefully read the science, and it is very hard to watch parents make that decision.”

I was mollified by his answer, but I would like to see his office – and other offices and schools, etc. – take a harder line about vaccination, something that Hales said his practice hasn’t completely ruled out in the future.

“I have been in practice long enough that I have seen these diseases, and I really do not want to see them again,” he said.

I haven’t seen these diseases, and I really never want to see them, ever. I don’t even want to deal with so much as an ear infection or a queasy stomach for a few months.

I have had my more than my fill of illness. Be well, everyone. Take your vitamins, drink your water, eat your veggies, wash your hands, sneeze into your elbow, stay home if you’re sick – and for the love of everything, please vaccinate your kids. 




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