Katrina Clarke | Feb. 11, 2015 | Toronto Star
When public health officials told Jennifer White her newborn baby had possibly been exposed to measles, she burst into tears.
Griffin was just 15 days old when White took him for a routine checkup at a doctor’s office in Markham in late January. On Monday, she received a call from public health and learned that Griffin had potentially been exposed.
White and her baby had shared the waiting room with someone infected with measles, or someone infected with measles had just left. Measles can be transmitted through the air up to two hours after an infected person has been somewhere.
The news was agonizing for White, whose 5-year-old daughter, Olivia, died in her sleep on Boxing Day three years ago. Now, Griffin could be facing a potentially deadly illness. He is too young to be vaccinated.
Then White got angry. She wrote a powerful Facebook post on Tuesday taking aimat “anti-vaxxers” — people who do not vaccinate their children. The post, which included a photograph of Griffin, has since been shared more than 242,000 times.
The viral post has made Griffin and White, a vice-president of marketing at a private school, the human faces at the centre of a debate about the importance of childhood vaccination that’s been raging in Canada and the United States.
White drove home the message: Vaccines are not just about your child.
“We obviously have been given a huge gift with Griffin. We’ve opened a new chapter to our lives,” White, 37, told the Star in an exclusive interview.
“I’m furious at how, as a society, we could get to this point,” she went on. “You can’t just look at Griffin and say he deserves to go through this . . . We’ve done everything right as a family.”
White, who lives in Pickering, said she’s not angry at the person who possibly exposed her baby to measles, but rather at parents who refuse to vaccinate their children based on “quackery.”
“You think you are protecting them by letting them eat their shovel full of dirt and reducing antibiotics and eating organic? You aren’t,” she wrote. “And you would be the first to line up if you had an inkling of what the death of a child feels like. You would be crawling through the streets on your hands and knees, begging, BEGGING to get that vaccine into your precious babies.”
She called parents’ refusal to vaccinate a child against a preventable disease “unconscionable.”
“I think that I really touched a nerve,” she said, adding she’s been blown away by the online support. “I think that finally we’re beginning to approach the point where your choice to not vaccinate does no longer outweigh my choice for my family to be safe.”
Measles is highly contagious. Ten per cent of infected people experience complications, including pneumonia and encephalitis, or brain swelling.
For those who know the Whites, the burden feels particularly unjust.
In 2012, White went to wake up her daughter, Olivia, on Boxing Day, she found her firstborn — a sweet, princess-loving, effervescent girl — lifeless.
Olivia had died of an undiagnosed blood infection.
“This just brings up a whole bunch of . . . old feelings,” said White. “Your world can change in a second.”
For now, Griffin is in a holding pattern — he does not have symptoms of measles but could still develop them in the coming days. White is watching for a fever, runny nose and cough.
“We think every tiny sign could be something,” she said.
Her ordeal comes as York Region Public Health confirmed the region’s first case of measles this year on Wednesday. The infected person is under 30, male and was fully vaccinated — the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella vaccine) provides over 95 per cent protection against the disease. The man visited a doctor’s office in late January, but health officials won’t say which one.
In a joint statement also released Wednesday, Ontario’s health minister and acting chief medical officer of health urged Ontarians to get vaccinated.
“Parents who do not get their kids immunized are putting other children at risk,” wrote Dr. Eric Hoskins and Dr. Robin Williams.
For now, White remains at home, in isolation with Griffin — something she said York Region Public Health officials advised her to do until Tuesday, 21 days after possible exposure, the point at which the incubation period is over.
She said she was told that if she works with children, she shouldn’t go to work — but White can’t avoid her 3½-year-old daughter, Aurelia.
White and her husband, Glenn, initially worried about Aurelia, who has only received one dose of the recommended two-dose vaccine because of her age, but their doctor said the risk is negligible. A second dose of MMR is supposed to be administered to children somewhere between the ages of 4 and 6.
Speaking to the Star, York Region Public Health said that if someone was fully vaccinated, they wouldn’t be told to stay in isolation or away from work.
“I can understand the mother’s concern of having to wait and watch out for any kind of symptoms,” said Dr. Lilian Yuan, associate medical officer of health. “It’s a difficult time for people.”
Yuan said Griffin may be partially protected against the disease because he is nursing. Vaccinated mothers can pass on antibodies to their babies through breastfeeding, she said.
In the meantime, White is at home, waiting.
“We were hit by a truck the first time around — we didn’t see it coming,” White said of Olivia’s death. “This time, it’s almost like you see it coming and you’re stuck in the headlights. And hopefully the truck swerves. I hope to God it does.”
Quotes from White’s Facebook post
“If you have chosen to not vaccinate yourself or your child, I blame you.”
“You have stood on the shoulders of our collective protection for too long. From that high height, we have given you the PRIVILEGE of our protection, for free. And in return, you gave me this week. A week from hell.”
“You think you are protecting them through extracts and homeopathy and positive thoughts and Laws of Attraction and dancing by candlelight on a full moon? You aren’t.”
“And you would be the first to line up if you had an inkling of what the death of a child feels like. You would be crawling through the streets on your hands and knees, begging, BEGGING to get that vaccine into your precious babies because that is what I would have done, if I could, to save my daughter.”
“What would you have done if your child lay dying? Would you give them a scientifically proven, safe and effective vaccine and risk the minuscule likelihood of a side effect? Or would you let them go, knowing that at least they won’t develop autism (which they wouldn’t even develop anyway because SCIENCE)?”