The other day, the mother of a nine-week-old baby girl called my office in a panic. Her daughter was having terrible breathing trouble, with coughing and wheezing. She asked to been seen that day, and of course I said yes. I asked mom how the baby had been doing overall, and she said that she’d had some noisy breathing as a newborn, but all was well until the past few nights, when her breathing became labored, noisy, and she just didn’t seem “right.” On first examining the baby, she seemed well-nourished and was sleeping comfortably. There was no wheeze, noise, or cough. However, while I looked with a small flexible telescope at her voice box, she began to have a horrible-sounding cough.
As an airway surgeon, my ears have been finely tuned to the sounds of stridor — croup, laryngitis, tracheal (windpipe) abnormalities, vocal cord problems, muscle weakness, cartilage immaturity etc. Most of us who’ve been in practice awhile can distinguish a croup kid from a tracheitis kid from across the street.
But this sounded different. Not something I hear every day or even every year. The child seemed to be in agony from the cough, but there was no structural problem. Her exam was normal. I mentioned possible etiologies of the cough to her mom, including several viruses and bacteria. I asked her if her five older children (ages 18 months and up) had had their immunizations, and she assured me that they had. I suggested she go see her pediatrician, who would be able to check for certain viruses or a lung problem, and told mom I’d call her pediatrician to let her know that mom and baby were on their way.
“She lied to you,” her pediatrician said. “Nobody in that family has received one vaccine.” She lied. Lied? This baby could have had pertussis, better known as whooping cough. My waiting room is filled with patients with weakened immune systems, other newborns too young to be immunized, and elderly cancer patients. If one ever wondered how epidemics start, we had just seen our cute little bundle of typhoid Mary, just west of tinseltown. We have lived through several whooping cough epidemics in just the past few years, and babies are dying unnecessarily in front of our eyes. And this mom needed to lie about her child’s immune status? Parts of Los Angeles have immunization rates lower than those of South Sudan, so one would think that this mom would feel utterly comfortable, and perhaps even proud, that her children were not tainted with big pharma-driven, toxin-laden vaccines.
Thankfully it turned out not to be pertussis, but a treatable, short-lived viral illness. I will see the baby again, should she need my care. I will not hold the lying against her mom. Patients lie to their doctors all the time — about smoking, alcohol, diet, lifestyle, you name it. We don’t want those who care for us to be angry at us, and we want to show them that we’re trying — that we’re all on the same team. But the vaccine debate has polarized the parenting community.
In a recent piece in the Hollywood Reporter, the writer was unable to find one family to speak on the record about not immunizing their children. Not because they don’t stand by their choice, but because they didn’t want any backlash from those on the “other side.” Vaccine choice has become one of the few health issues that has forced families to fudge their answers, or worse, hide behind them.
Nina Shapiro is a pediatric otolaryngologist. She is the author of Take a Deep Breath: Clear the Air for the Health of Your Child, can be reached on her self-titled site, Dr. Nina Shapiro, and can be reached on Twitter @drninashapiro.
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