A novel about an anti-vaxxer: fears, facts and fiction

I hope Keep You Safe might help tame, for some readers, a little of the hostility and anger surrounding the vaccination debate

Melissa Hill: While I knew vaccination was a controversial topic, it soon became apparent that I’d completely underestimated just how emotive an issue it truly was

Melissa Hill: While I knew vaccination was a controversial topic, it soon became apparent that I’d completely underestimated just how emotive an issue it truly was

 

The idea for Keep You Safe was initially sparked a few years back by my own concerns re MMR vaccinations for my daughter as a baby.

At the time, my husband and I had heard about the Wakefield controversy and the vaccine’s potential connection to autism. Even though the link had been discredited, we were still hesitant about proceeding until we’d thoroughly researched everything.

We did vaccinate her in the end, deciding that the risk of disease far outweighed any other misgivings, but for my part, I was intrigued by the very negative response among friends and family (and especially other parents) towards anyone who chooses not to.

I wanted to explore the nuances behind MMR refusal and try to illuminate some of the very real fears some parents have about vaccination

The issue raised its head again when my daughter’s primary school sent out MMR booster consent forms not long after she started.

I recalled that overwhelmingly negative sentiment towards parents who might raise any objection or even express the slightest reservation about the vaccine and figured such negativity would likely be even more heightened among parents of schoolchildren – especially if an unvaccinated child happened to become ill.

For me it raised an interesting question: if you truly believed your child was in danger, should you still be expected to go against your better judgement for the greater good? And, if you don’t, risk being effectively demonised by the community if the worst happens.

While I knew vaccination was a controversial topic, it soon became apparent that I’d completely underestimated just how emotive an issue it truly was.

I spoke to families, trawled through hundreds of online articles and forum discussions from both sides of the debate, and I don’t think I have ever come across a subject that stirred up so much discord amongst parents, not to mention outright anger.

Rational argument seems to have no place in the anti-vaxx discussion, and anyone who is even mildly suspicious about health recommendations for any reason at all is almost immediately vilified, written off as an irresponsible lunatic and conspiracy theorist, hell-bent on ruining humanity.

The slightest hint of mistrust or concern (to say nothing of the multitude of very valid and often distressing personal experiences) is severely frowned upon and vehemently dismissed, taken almost as a personal affront by parents who do vaccinate.

This was a huge surprise to me, as I’d expected a much more nuanced debate – especially when negative side-effects apparently caused by other vaccines such as swine flu and HPV are commonly reported – but it merely gave me even more grist for the mill when writing the novel.

I was also concerned to find that many parents – like Kate in the story – who can’t/don’t vaccinate their children for medical reasons, are often afraid to admit this publicly for fear of such backlash; based upon what I witnessed through my research, understandably so.

One common misconception I found, as mentioned before, is that parents who choose not to vaccinate are almost immediately written off as raving conspiracy theorists who aren’t to be trusted with their own or anyone else’s children.

When the truth is – like all parents from any walk of life, class or culture – they are simply trying to weigh up all options based on the information available, in order to make the absolute best decisions for their child,

While the Wakefield/autism research was widely and repeatedly discredited, there are also countless heartbreaking anecdotal stories from parents who watched their children change in front of their eyes within hours of being vaccinated, which is likely why doubt still persists.

As the majority of parenting decisions are based on anecdotal advice and shared experiences, it is somewhat surprising that these personal accounts are still so easily dismissed and, more often than not, ridiculed.

Writing this novel, I wanted to explore the nuances behind MMR refusal and try to illuminate some of the very real fears some parents have about vaccination, it was also especially crucial to illustrate the massively serious and heartbreaking effects of disease on children who are unprotected, and thus completely reliant on herd immunity.

While I hope readers enjoy taking a thought-provoking journey with each of the characters, I also hope that the Cooper family’s point of view might help tame, for some readers, a little of the hostility and anger surrounding the vaccination debate. Yet at the same time, show that a decision not to vaccinate unquestionably provokes real consequences on a broader societal level, and thus comes with responsibilities outside of the personal.

Ultimately, both families in Keep You Safe are dealing with precisely the same issue parents all over the world and from all walks of life struggle with every day; keeping their children safe from harm.
Keep You Safe is published by HQ, at £12.99

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