A parent recently asked me, “Why do you push vaccines?”
For 19 years I knew the answer. I push vaccines because unnecessary suffering is unnecessary. Vaccines are the the most successful and well-studied medical intervention ever. Vaccines are a huge part of why it is better to be a child born in 2021 than in 1921. But, I also know there are many illnesses children face that don’t have a vaccine and for those illnesses they need a loving caregiver to nurse them through.
If my patients catch COVID because they’re still too young to get the vaccine, I want their parents to be less sick than them. And trust me parents, you’ll want that too.
Through the years, my own children have had fevers and colds, even pneumonia. A few times, they've been sick enough to be hospitalized. And each time, I laid in the pullout chair next to them, and whispered thanks to the nurses and medical assistants who checked their vital signs through the night. I left their bedside just long enough to get myself a cup of coffee to help me make it through another day holding their hand, helping them heal. Every time, I’ve wished I could be the one suffering with the fever or the cough. Enter COVID, and suddenly the question “why do you push vaccines” has two answers. One, because unnecessary suffering is unnecessary and two, because parents matter. If my patients catch COVID because they’re still too young to get the vaccine, I want their parents to be less sick than them. And trust me parents, you’ll want that too.
Whether you are young, old, healthy, or ill, a child is counting on you.
If your kids are ready to go back to school, it will be because you got them ready. You’ll ease their first day jitters. You’ll pack a lunch - or arrange for one there. If someone hurts their feelings, you will console them. If your child gets sick, you will stay up all night, wipe their noses, take their temperature, give them medicine, call their doctor. This is just a bit of the hard work we all do for school age children. And this is why I want everyone’s back to school list to include a COVID19 vaccination for every person in your home who can get one, especially the adult caregivers. Whether you are young, old, healthy, or ill, a child is counting on you.
Even a healthy child with a sick parent will suffer. How much suffering does a sick child with a sick parent endure?
The scenario I am seeing on repeat at my office is a parent is sick in bed with a high fever and the worst cough of their life. Then, the other parent gets sick. Who are the healthy children supposed to depend on? Worse still, now the kids get it. They have a fever and won’t drink anything. Who will stay up and give them water through the night? And when they refuse, who will know how to coax them to drink enough to avoid dehydration? Who knows the children best to know when they need to go to the doctor or the ER? This scenario is an unvaccinated family suffering from mild COVID. One of the great blessings of COVID is that children don’t get as sick as adults. They don’t die as often. They seem to recover quicker and better. But, lost in that truth is that even mild COVID is a terrible illness to catch. When children get COVID, they need care from someone who knows them and loves them. They need care from someone who can notice if they aren’t eating enough or have a sudden drop in energy or difficulty breathing. Even a healthy child with a sick parent will suffer. How much suffering does a sick child with a sick parent endure?
The best way to prevent COVID in children and to minimize suffering is to keep the parents from catching COVID.
Over the past 19 years I’ve explained to parents of all educational levels how to understand data about childhood vaccines. I’ve helped countless families apply the data to their own child to make informed medical decisions for their families. I’ve walked them through global data on how we have dramatically improved child survival worldwide and prevented suffering millions of times with this simple intervention. I’ve walked through side effects of vaccines and why the risk-versus-benefit weighs so heavily toward vaccination. But the global COVID pandemic has given me a fresh perspective on why preventing illness in parents is so important to prevent suffering in children. And watching parents get sicker than children worries me. Who will take care of the kids?
When parents of my patients tell me they haven’t been vaccinated for COVID, I feel sad. I know there is a good chance their family will catch COVID as it becomes more contagious. I know the parent sitting in front of me loves their family and I know that when that family catches COVID, the child’s suffering will be worse because their parent will be so unnecessarily sick. I also know that our scientific labels, mild, moderate, and severe are meaningless when it is your own child who is sick. The best way to prevent COVID in children and to minimize suffering is to keep the parents from catching COVID. Lockdowns and distancing have so many consequences that we all know and hate. Masks definitely help and give our kids some protection, but the best tool I know to prevent COVID19 in children is the vaccination of parents and caregivers. And the best way to support a child suffering from COVID19 is to have a loving, healthy caregiver taking care of them. These days when I talk to parents about what to do to this fall as they prepare to send their kids back to school during a global pandemic my advice is short and simple. I tell parents, “Please vaccinate yourself. You matter.”
Alice Brock-Utne, MD is a pediatrician and mother of three with a streak of geek for science.