How we see the world shapes who we choose to be — and sharing compelling experiences can frame the way we treat each other, for the better. This is a powerful perspective.
“You’re due for a whooping cough booster. Want to take care of that shot right now?” the doctor casually asks me during a routine physical in 2018.
The mere mention of it was enough to make me start sweating through my paper gown — just as it did in 2009, when I made the decision to get caught up on all vaccines.
You see, I was raised to believe vaccines were dangerous. This mindset was the result of my younger brother suffering from a dangerously high fever and seizures shortly after receiving the MMR vaccine when he was about a year old. He would eventually receive a diagnosis of autism, epilepsy, and severe developmental disabilities.
“Vaccines are important for you and those around you,” I told myself, trying to think more like a rational health journalist than someone who was told by the people I trusted most that vaccines were harmful.
My parents, devastated by their young son’s life-altering prognosis, started looking for answers.
They eventually found them in a — now debunked and highly-criticized — study that linked the MMR vaccine to autism. They decided to rely on herd immunity to protect all their children from vaccine-preventable diseases.
Lucky for me, it worked — although other unvaccinated people haven’t been so fortunate.
So I didn’t think much about immunizations until the age of 20, when I earned a scholarship to study abroad in India. While polio was long gone in the United States, this preventable disease and others were still (in 2009) infecting people there.
That alarmed me.
So I began reading everything I could find about immunizations.
My research concluded that these vaccines are safe, important to health, and not responsible for my brother’s disabilities. While still nervous, I spent the next six months getting shot after shot.
Those jitters, it seems, would return a decade later in my doctor’s office. I hesitated for what seemed like an hour, trying to summon the courage to get that whooping cough booster.
“You’ve been through this before. Vaccines are important for you and those around you,” I told myself.
In the end I managed to convince myself to go through with it.
But this experience got me wondering: Do all adult children of vaccine-hesitant families have a lingering fear if and when they get their shots? And how does their experience as children affect their experiences as adults?
I decided to track down a few others with experiences similar to mine to learn more. Here’s what they said:
Ingrained fear can stay with you and affect others
There’s plenty of excellent research that supports rational decision-making around vaccines. But if you were raised to fear vaccines, the emotions surrounding shots can still make immunizations a scary experience.
“Nothing is 100-percent safe or effective in medicine. There’s always a risk-benefit analysis that needs to be done, even with vaccines,” explains Dr. Matthew Daley, a pediatrician and senior investigator at Kaiser Permanente’s Institute for Health Research, who has studied vaccine safety and hesitancy.
“While that makes it sound like a pretty rational and analytical decision, it’s also an emotional decision — people are really scared about the bad things they’ve heard about,” he says.
Alice Bailey*, a 27-year-old woman in Arizona, says her parents believed it was dangerous “to put diseases in your baby.” So they opted out of shots for her.
“My family wasn’t really a doctor family. We didn’t have annual checkups, and we didn’t go to the doctor unless it was an emergency,” she says.
As a result, Bailey only got a tetanus vaccine as a child.
But after reading about an otherwise healthy young man who almost died from the flu a few years back, Bailey decided it would be a good idea to get the flu vaccine.
“I was really scared of the needle and side effects. I did a lot of research and convinced my two cousins to go with me to the appointment — I didn’t want to go alone,” she explains.
Still nervous around vaccines, Bailey explains she even had a tough decision to make when she became a pet owner.
“I was so nervous to vaccinate my dog,” says Bailey. “I saw her as this tiny fragile baby. When they told me she needed all these shots, I thought, ‘How on earth can her little body handle all of this?’”
After talking it over with the veterinarian, Bailey moved forward with her dog’s immunizations — a decision she takes pride in.
“It’s interesting how much that ingrained fear can play into things, but I’m glad I could protect my dog to the best of my ability,” she adds.
“I’ll follow the doctor’s instructions to vaccinate my children if I ever have any, and I plan to get the flu shot every year.”
For some, it provides a sense of empowerment
Lingering fear, however, isn’t a universal experience when adult children of anti-vax parents get their shots. Vaccines can actually provide some people with a sense of authority over their bodies.
“I didn’t have any hesitation, I told them to give me everything I missed,” says Jackson Veigel, a 32-year-old man in Los Angeles, about getting his missing vaccines at the age of 25 as a requirement for his EMT license.
“I felt like an iron man. It was like, f*** you, tetanus.”
For Veigel, immunizations were wrapped up in a bigger effort to distance himself from the “religious cult” community in which he was raised. His parents had opted him out of some vaccines, believing they were harmful.
“It was a bit of a rebellion, but it was more about doing the things I thought were right,” he says. “The vaccines gave me a sense of empowerment.”
Avery Gray*, an Alabama man in his early 20s, also chose to take control of his health by getting the first vaccine of his life after news broke about a recent measles outbreaks.
Research on the MMR vaccine calmed his worries about the potential side effects his parents warned him about growing up. But he was still deeply afraid of the pain from the needle.
“Building up the confidence to go do it was the hardest part of getting vaccinated,” says Gray. “This wasn’t a doctor’s visit, it was preventive medicine that I felt really good about. I’m excited to go back and get all of the vaccines now.”
Relationships with family members can change
When I decided to get my immunizations, my dad supported the decision because he knew I’d be at risk of certain diseases while traveling. However, vaccine-avoidant parents aren’t always as understanding of their adult children, and choosing to vaccinate can permanently alter relationships.
“My dad and I didn’t talk for a year after I told him I got vaccinated,” says Roan Wright, a 23-year-old in North Carolina.
“I keep hearing this phrase ‘vaccines cause adults,’ and it feels very dismissive. The more you accuse people of hurting others and making them feel like the bad guy when they’re trying to make the right decision, the more they’ll push back.”
“It turned into this whole argument about my autonomy, and whether it was even my call to undo what he thought was best for me,” Wright says.
The fall-out with their father made Wright question if they had made the right decision.
“My dad’s beliefs about vaccines being dangerous definitely stuck with me as an adult. But after stumbling upon research debunking [those myths], I realized my parents came from a place of ignorance when they decided not to vaccinate me,” they explain. “That information and second opinions from friends reinforced my decision and the right I had as an adult to protect my body.”
When Wright and their father eventually made amends, they were surprised to hear about his new opinions on vaccines.
“During that period, he examined more in-depth articles and the justifications he had used not to vaccinate me, and he realized that he was wrong. He did a complete 180. It was unexpected, to say the least,” says Wright.
Anti-vaccine hate can still spark negative emotions
When you get the majority of your shots in adulthood, you see vaccines differently.
You realize that while your parents’ misguided beliefs went against medical advice, their choices more than likely came from a place of deep love for their children. And because of this, it can be tough to scroll past harsh posts that demonize vaccine-hesitant people on social media.
“It hurts when I see anti-vax hate online,” says Gray.
“I keep hearing this phrase ‘vaccines cause adults,’ and it feels very dismissive. The more you accuse people of hurting others and making them feel like the bad guy when they’re trying to make the right decision, the more they’ll push back,” he adds.
While convinced of the safety and importance of vaccines, Wright believes there’s misinformation on both sides, especially when it comes to assumptions about who these individuals who choose not to vaccinate their children are.
“It’s a classist assumption that parents of those who choose not to vaccinate are uneducated or stupid — that’s just false. That medical jargon [about the dangers of vaccines] was presented as a scientific breakthrough at the time, and both educated and uneducated people have been duped,” says Wright.
In the end, it’s about compassionate and empathetic dialogue
Ultimately, it comes down to the need for compassionate conversations that address people’s emotional fears surrounding vaccines. Something that most of the people I spoke with for this article believe could help increase the rates of vaccination overall.
“If we talked about this not with scare tactics, but in a real honest way that focused on education instead of shame, we’d have a much different conversation,” says Bailey.
*These names have been changed at the request of those interviewed.
Joni Sweet is a freelance writer who specializes in travel, health, and wellness. Her work has been published by National Geographic, Forbes, the Christian Science Monitor, Lonely Planet, Prevention, HealthyWay, Thrillist, and more. Keep up with her on Instagram and check out her portfolio.