Cindy's story: A story of how baby Richelle had to rely on herd immunity for protection.
While many people often assume that only people who choose not to vaccinate are putting themselves at risk, they forget that there are others who don’t have a choice, and who rely on the community to keep them safe.
Richelle has dilated cardiomyopathy, a common heart muscle disease in children. She was placed on the waitlist for a heart transplant at only seven months old. While on the list, she was unable to receive the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) and varicella vaccines given to children at 12 months. Because the MMR and varicella vaccines are “live” vaccines, containing small traces of the virus, they are not given to people on transplant lists. Unlike parents who choose not to give these vaccines to their children, Cindy didn’t have the option of protecting her daughter.
While for most, catching chickenpox is an inconvenience that means an itchy week of blisters and bed rest, for Richelle it could have meant losing her chance to get a new heart. “If a heart became available for her, and her blood work showed any trace of infection, she would not be eligible for the transplant,” says Cindy. “When you’re on the list, you’re relying on everyone else to keep you safe.”
Post-transplant individuals also rely on those around them to prevent infection, as they will be immunosuppressed for the rest of their lives. For infants like Richelle, who are placed on the transplant list before their 12-month immunizations, it means they will never have protection against measles, mumps, rubella, or chickenpox. And the risk of serious complications with any of those diseases is much higher.
Fortunately for Richelle, her heart function improved and she has been taken off the transplant list to wait and see if she continues to get better. “It’s very rare for children with her condition to be taken off the list; we were very lucky,” Cindy recalls. Being taken off the list had another immediate benefit: as soon as she could, Cindy took her to be vaccinated. “I wanted that protection for her as soon as possible.”
“A lot of people rely on vaccination of the herd,” says Cindy. “You would never look at Richelle and know she was so sick.” She is glad that for now Richelle can spend time with family and friends without worrying about the consequences of an infection. But like Richelle, many other children (and adults) who appear healthy have conditions that prevent them from being immunized, and increase the risk of a serious complication from a vaccine-preventable disease. Ultimately, you never know who else’s health you are risking when you forgo immunizations.