Overcoming Vaccine Anxiety: The Power of Story

This week, I took my daughter to receive the last of her early childhood vaccines. Two years ago, she was completely unvaccinated.

I was raised by parents who, after some bad experiences with conventional medicine, opted not to immunize my siblings or me, instead pursuing more “natural” healthcare options. When I became a parent myself, I was naturally (no pun intended) inclined to follow in their footsteps. But I wanted to make sure I was doing the best by my daughter. So, acknowledging, but not truly resisting my confirmation bias, I endeavored to do some research.

It wasn’t pretty.

While the Internet is a wonderful resource—within seconds, you can find reliable information about vaccines from organizations like the CDC, WHO, and AAP—it also has a tendency to amplify hysteria. Within minutes, I had found countless horror stories of vaccine injuries, autism, and SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome). My husband and I both have advanced degrees, but it’s hard to privilege cold, objective science in the face of distraught parents who insist their children were irreparably harmed by vaccines— especially when we were uncertain about their safety to begin with. (The fact that the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program exists did nothing to mollify my concerns.)

I thought I was being objective, gathering information, and weighing the options. But the more I read, the more fear corrupted my reason, until I felt there were only two possibilities before me: harming my child by commission or harming her by omission. On the one hand, if I consented to vaccination, there was a chance some ingredient in the shot could permanently injure her. On the other hand, if I declined vaccination, there was a chance she could contract a deadly disease. But because serious illnesses like polio and the measles are not very common in the U.S. (precisely because of the success of vaccines!), it felt like better odds to simply do nothing, rather than actively inject her with a substance that could have tragic consequences.

This perspective, of course, was not only a false dichotomy (these were not the only two outcomes), but a false equivalence: the risk of harm between the two was not even remotely equal. The MMR vaccine, for example, has only been reported to cause a serious allergic reaction in less than one out of a million doses[1], while measles results in hospitalization for one out of every four people—and death for one out of every thousand cases.[2] That’s an enormous difference.

But at the end of the day, the statistics didn’t matter. When I considered giving my daughter a vaccine, all I could think about were those stories I had read. All I could hear was the high-pitched screams of sobbing babies, fighting the pain of their swelling brains. All I could see were children staring dully into their parents’ eyes, their personalities fading slowly away. And so, even though I knew that objectively, logically, statistically I should vaccinate my daughter, I found myself unable to act.

It took time for me to break free from this paralysis. It was the result of countless conversations with kind friends, and it required a sincere examination of my internal biases and fears. Even once I decided to move forward, the first time I took my daughter to get immunized, I was terrified.

I want to validate the concerns of parents who feel, as I did, immobilized by fear. No one chooses not to vaccinate because they don’t love their children. On the contrary, it’s a fierce sense of love that motivates us to protect our babies from perceived threats to their safety, and I don’t think we can rely on statistics and studies alone to override our primal sense of fight or flight.

If we want to encourage parents to vaccinate their children, we have to go beyond the numbers. Humans as a species value stories; we create meaning from stories. And that means, whether we like it or not, that anecdotal evidence carries a lot of weight. Modern medicine isn’t perfect, and my heart goes out to parents who feel their child has been injured by vaccines. Their voices deserve to be heard. (Otherwise, how can we continue to improve?) But their stories do not represent the millions of children who are immunized, to no ill effect, every single day. We need to make sure we’re sharing these stories, about children who are healthy and thriving, and about parents who overcame their fears to make the choice to vaccinate.

I’ll keep sharing mine.

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  • drsimmer

    Thank you, Katie.