x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Vaccination gets under parents' skin

The brouhaha over childhood vaccines has got a lot of people on TV but is has yet to solve any problem for parents.

A quick shot in each chubby thigh and a cocktail of illnesses is coursing through Astrid's veins. The first syringe is Infanrix hexa, a vaccine against diphtheria, tetanus, whooping cough, hepatitis B, polio and Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib). The second is Prevenar, which inoculates against seven types of Streptococcus pneumoniae bacteria. Midway through, Astrid starts to cry, but being pinned down is more distressing than the needle pricks. She cheers up as soon as I pick her up.

On the way out, we walk past a boy wearing a surgical mask. He is about six years old. The mask is too big for him and it sags off his face. Glancing around the waiting room, I notice a handful of other masked faces - young and old - staring glumly ahead. We shuffle in to the lift and wait tight-lipped for the doors to reopen. When we finally spill out on to the street, we breathe deeply. Back at home, Astrid sleeps for most of the afternoon. It is the deep slumber of the unwell, a sign of a body battling diseases. When she wakes up I give her some Calpol, the strawberry syrup painkiller and childhood panacea. Overnight, she is hot and clammy. Her temperature increases by perhaps a degree or two, but by morning she is back to normal, except for one important difference: her chances of being maimed or killed by myriad diseases have been drastically reduced.

There is something humbling about our slim distance from a host of pandemics. Two generations ago, polio was crippling thousands and diphtheria was killing thousands more. For this reason alone, it is a blessing, I feel, to be born in this century not the last. Yet vaccinations are far from cut and dried. The MMR vaccine in the UK was linked to autism in the 1990s, although the claim has since been disproved. A recent article in Wired magazine details how a movement questioning the routine vaccination of children has developed in the United States in recent years. Fuelled by mistrust of large pharmaceutical companies and buoyed by endorsements from famous people such as the actor Jim Carrey, parents are rejecting various vaccinations for their children. As a result, in parts of the United States, some children's diseases are reaching levels not seen since vaccines were introduced.

This campaign has gathered momentum through fear and misunderstanding. I know because it has happened to me. One vaccine Astrid did not have on her most recent hospital visit was against the rotavirus. The doctor said it was "optional". Optional belongs in fast-food restaurants and car showrooms. It is not a good term to use in hospitals. We held off on the optional vaccine, at least until we could do some research.

When short of time, research means Google. You can find the answer to any question on the internet. It is a cornucopia of information. In fact, you can find lots of answers to the same question on the internet. It vents free opinions. It provides a forum for democratic, even at times anarchic, comment. In many cases, this is a good thing. One exception is medicine. A few hours surfing the web cannot replace 11 sleepless years of study, a white coat and a stethoscope.

After an evening online reading about the rotavirus vaccine, I am drowning in conflicting opinions. I am medically stumped. I am plagued by information and paralysed by jabbering voices. In the end, it comes down to risk, I suppose. Like asking a passenger to land an aeroplane, calling upon parents to decide which vaccines to give their children is risky. It might work out, but it is better left to the professionals.

I pop my head around the door jamb and say "peek-a-boo". I smile and Astrid giggles hysterically. It is the 10th time today and just as fun as the first. This game works on surprise, but until recently I did not comprehend quite why it worked or the scale of the awe. Until eight or nine months old, babies do not understand what is called object permanence. In other words, they do not realise that people are still there even though they cannot see them.

When I spring into view, it is more than a small and simple movement. It is as if I have conjured myself back into existence. For the next couple of months at least, out of sight is literally out of mind for Astrid.