Academic journal article Women's Studies Quarterly

A Shot in the Dark: Vaccinations and Redundant Risks

Academic journal article Women's Studies Quarterly

A Shot in the Dark: Vaccinations and Redundant Risks

Article excerpt

There occurs ...an overproduction of risks, which sometimes relativize, sometimes supplement and sometimes outdo one another.

-Ulrich Beck, Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity

In 2007, the state of Maryland passed a law stating that parents who did not keep their children's vaccinations up to date could be fined or imprisoned. In November that year, parents from Maryland s Prince Georges County were summoned by the circuit court to get their children vaccinated, even though some families had previously claimed medical or religious exemptions. After missing a September deadline, twenty-three hundred students still had incomplete immunization records and thus were barred from attending county schools. In what school officials described as a last resort, these students' parents were asked to appear in court for a hearing at which they would be reprimanded by a judge and ordered to have their children vaccinated, at no cost, right there in the courthouse (Hernandez 2007, BOl). The parents who did not attend, or who refused the vaccination, would be fined fifty dollars "for each day they fail [ed] to get their children immunized after being charged" and would face the possibility often days in jail (Hernandez 2007, BOl). In many cases, parents accused the school system of poor record keeping and insisted that their children had indeed received all the required shots, but other parents and protestors strenuously objected to the county's policy, characterizing the events at the circuit court as "tyranny" (Loe Fisher 2007) and "health fascism" (Laibow 2007).

Much discussed in parenting magazines and online forums, this incident in Prince George's County and the new law that predicated it constitute a high-profile example of a dramatic conflict between parents, medical experts, and government authorities. Recent statistics indicate that the majority of American citizens are being vaccinated in accordance with the schedule recommended by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC); for instance, the CDC states that 92 percent of US children between the ages of nineteen and thirty-five months have received an MMR (measles-mumps-rubella) vaccine, and 93 percent in that same age group have been vaccinated for hepatitis B (National Center for Health Statistics 2009). There is, however, a vocal, increasingly publicized minority positing possible links between childhood shots - particularly the aforementioned MMR vaccination - and the development of autism and autism spectrum disorders /conditions, such as Asperger's syndrome and PDD-NOS (pervasive developmental disorder-not otherwise specified). Some members of this minority have also registered concerns that childhood shots maybe linked to brain damage, learning disabilities, and other conditions. The protestors' strong words, cited above, suggest the strength and depth of their feelings about the issue.

By analyzing media portrayals of the vaccination debate; official statements from health care organizations; and personal, email-based interviews with thirty-five parents from sixteen US states and Washington, DC, and from various socioeconomic backgrounds, I will suggest that the vaccination debate itself is heightening parents' fears and undermining their sense of safety.1 For the purpose of this essay, my definition of "safety" is twofold: the sense that one is protected from illness and disorders and, as I will explain, the sense that one's position as a citizen within a democratic society is secure. First, a medical technology often credited with making society "safe" from diseases becomes an object of anxiety and skepticism. Then, these concerns circulate, becoming the focus of dramatic media reports and celebrity interviews and of frightening statements from the CDC, American Academy of Pediatrics, and other organizations. Some onlookers start to fear the vaccinations themselves and the possible side effects they have heard referenced in the news and elsewhere. …

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