I’ve cried plenty throughout the pandemic, but perhaps no more intensely than after getting my coronavirus vaccine. Sitting in the observation area after the first dose, I was incredulous. Just months ago, a path towards normal seemed truly impossible in our country’s cycle of half-hearted closings and reopening and a truly devastating trend of politicizing common sense and science. After my shot, I quickly returned to my daily routine of obsessively consuming scientific materials and news articles. I spoke with experts smarter than I am, braced myself for both expected side effects and rare adverse reactions. I armed myself with knowledge to rebut the anti-vaccine lies and half-truths that I knew would only grow in number. And more than anything, braced myself for my greatest fear: That these vaccines wouldn’t actually be as effective as promised.
Here’s the craziest thing: These vaccines are indeed more effective than our wildest scientific dreams. It’s why after the second dose, I wept again. I felt a new sense of hope, a relief so strong that my whole body softened and my face relaxed even under the pressure of my well-worn N95. I was overcome by a feeling of protection and security I hadn’t had since before the pandemic.
I’m fully vaccinated, now weeks out from my second dose. As spike protein antibodies course through my veins I want nothing more than to celebrate, cry out, hold my daughter tight. I want to bask in my protection and gleefully tell her again and again how mommy’s “COVID shot” will not only help keep our family healthy, but help everyone around us stay safe. But it’s hard to maintain my initial sense of triumph when I see so many challenges ahead. My tears of hope have been gradually replaced with a lingering sense of dread.
As the barriers to widespread vaccine uptake seem to pile on top of each other, there seems to be no greater challenge than an ingeniously run disinformation campaign. Lies, doubt and distrust spreads online like wildfire, with snake-oil salesmen and fame-seekers alike preying on our deepest fears for personal gain. And like the anti-vaccine movements we pediatricians now know all too well, those trading fear for profit know that there’s no more vulnerable target than parents, whose desire to do only what’s best by their children is now being manipulated against their best interests.
It’s easy to mistake disinformation as an exercise in healthy skepticism. There are endless reasons to approach the healthcare system with cynicism, to embrace its cures with a hefty dose of doubt. The field of medicine is only beginning to reckon with centuries of unethical testing and abuse, most often through the exploitation of minority communities. Our for-profit industries too often place finances over healing. Our medical institutions are far from infallible, and approaching our recommendations with scrutiny isn’t just justified– it’s necessary.
Yet even with maximal scrutiny, and using all tools at our disposal to analyze the data at hand, there is simply no doubt that these vaccines are safe, effective, and absolutely necessary. The online lies do nothing to help the families I see in my practice, the friends I counsel after work, the parents I talk to on social media. Instead, they take advantage of our sordid history and manipulate fears, taking control of bodies and autonomy in the exact same way we decry.
I can speak as a physician on the safety and efficacy of these vaccines, refer you to reputable resources and world-renowned experts. I can answer questions on risks and benefits for parents, children, pregnant women, breastfeeding women backed in real hard science. But right now, I want instead to speak as a mother — to each and every parent out there who has the opportunity to get this life-saving vaccine.
It’s as a mother that I make the most challenging decisions in my life. I want only what you want, which is to create the best, safest world for my child. It’s why despite knowing with every bone in my body that these vaccines are our only path forward, my heart still skips a beat with each horrible anti-vaccine lie. Like so many women, the myth of infertility stung particularly, felt personal, aimed itself at the very core of my motherhood. It’s a lie that has no biological grounding, no basis in science, and no reason to be considered. But as a mother, with my own history of reproductive struggles and pregnancy loss, the dagger still landed. It seems there is no more effective way to push us away from a life-saving vaccine than to prey on our very ability to be parents– not just now, but for years to come.
It’s as a mother that I understand how these lies shake us to our very core despite all logic and reasoning to the contrary. They whisper — what if? What if, sometime in the future, for some nebulous reason, in some strange way, in some unknown circumstance, something happens to us from the vaccine? What if, even worse, something happens to our ability to be a parent? What if, worst of all, something happens to our children, or even our future children? What if others prey on these darkest fears, show numbers out of context, assert that every post-vaccine occurrence is somehow related to the vaccine (rather than being simply correlated in time, and in fact rare and reversible when they are related.) What if they take that last shred of parental hope, strip it down, and lead us to believe that our salvation isn’t just too good to be true — it could actually hurt us?
It’s as a mother that I also speak to how poor the medical community’s efforts have been to reassure parents about these vaccines. I won’t shirk any of the blame. Those advocating for these vaccines are trained in science and accustomed to uncertainty. We embrace the truth that nothing in life comes with a 100% guarantee. We sift through data, use a wealth of scientific knowledge, and make a series of risk benefit decisions. We know that life-saving treatments remain steeped in unknowns, and live in a world where there will always be doubt.
It’s as a mother that I know this is what those who push you away from these miracle vaccines are taking advantage of. With no scientific standards or moral scruples, many happily assert that any degree of uncertainty brings certainty of danger. The scientific community is loath to match sweeping lies with bold truths, still humbled by a world of unknowns. So it’s as a mother that I’ll take the microphone. These vaccines are safe. These vaccines are effective. These vaccines are necessary. These vaccines will save your life.
Like all immunizations, these vaccines are as close as we get to certainty in medicine. Vaccines remain our greatest miracle, preventing millions from death and suffering, matched only by modern sanitation practices. These vaccines are a miracle twice over, offering the same life-saving effect while also bringing us the opportunity to end a certifiable pandemic in record time. That is, if we’re willing to take it.
I’ve been told for months that by promoting masks and distancing, I’m living in fear. My answer has always been the same. I’ve been living with hope, waiting for a safe end to this nightmare, knowing that my daughter is as bright and resilient as ever and will absolutely thrive. I have been working tirelessly to keep my family and community safe. The vaccine brings this safe end in sight. I got my shots without an ounce of fear. Now sitting on the other side, I see those same people accusing me of spreading fear of the virus doing the same of its life-saving cure.
I got my vaccine as a pediatrician, scientist, and humanist. But above all else, I got this vaccine as a mother. I shut out the horrible, exploitive noise insistent on preying on my parental insecurities. I tuned out the lies and fears, backed by no data or reasoning, that tried to manipulate me. I ignored those who tried to convince me—for as little as a click or a follow— that in my desire to protect my family I might instead harm them. I got this vaccine for my health, but more than anything I got this vaccine for my daughter. As her mother, I knew scientific logic and my own deepest instincts were enough to accept this life-saving, plague-ending shot. My wish for all parents is that they too can feel empowered to make this same, intoxicating, liberating choice.