I am the person every anti-vaccine advocate stays up at night worrying about– the person who had a horrible reaction to a fairly routine shot.
Even so, I’m pro-vaccine, and I think California’s new school vaccination law, which requires kids to get vaccinated or be homeschooled, makes a lot of sense.
When I received an email from my college health center encouraging all female students to get the (then) newly-released Gardasil HPV vaccine, I didn’t think twice. Of course I would get it, just as I had dutifully sat through every other recommended vaccination.
But a few hours after the nurse jabbed me in the arm, I knew something was wrong. I had joint pain all over — my knees, fingers, wrists, and ankles stiffened in a way that was entirely new to my body.
For months, I was in severe pain. Waking up was the hardest; I had to shake out my joints just to be able to make regular movements without grimacing.
The most unnerving part was that no one could tell me what was wrong. The school nurse diagnosed it as arthralgia — generalized joint pain, essentially — and reported the incident to Merck, the company that manufactured the vaccine.
My primary care doctor chastised me for getting a vaccine so soon after it had been released to the general public, and contacted Merck again about the reaction. I made regular visits to a rheumatologist, who could do nothing but monitor my test results and symptoms.
While women have reported episodes of arthralgia to Merck, there isn’t enough evidence to prove or disprove a causal link between joint pain and the vaccine. According to the doctors I consulted, it’s just as possible that Gardasil set off some sort of autoimmune reaction in my body, unrelated to its ingredients.
Whatever the reason for my reaction, I became terrified of vaccines, and vehemently refused to get so much as a flu shot.
But as the debate heated up over the next few years, I watched in horror as vaccine-preventable diseases like measles started reappearing in the U.S.
And I realised that for the most part, getting vaccinated isn’t about me. It’s about the elderly, babies, people with cancer and autoimmune diseases — anyone who is most likely to be harmed by the diseases that vaccines have or are in the process of eradicating.
There is a risk that you or your child will have a severe reaction to a vaccine. But according to the CDC, the chances of that happening are exceedingly rare. One Canadian study that tracked nearly 700,000 doses of Gardasil found just ten reports of serious adverse reactions. (Minor, temporary symptoms like rashes and fatigue are much more common.)
As for me? I started getting vaccines again, bracing myself for more nightmarish side effects. Nothing happened.
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