If you’ve been following the news over the last month or so, you’re probably aware of an unusually widespread measles outbreak that started at Disneyland in California. But this column isn’t about the efficacy of vaccines or if they cause autism (they don’t). No, this is about a local parent, Juniper Russo, who recently found herself in the spotlight, because she actually changed her mind about vaccines after her un-vaccinated daughter was diagnosed with autism at an early age. (Full disclosure: Juniper is a friend and I thought readers of The Pulse might find her story enlightening.)
The Pulse: You’re a writer by trade. Which article brought you all this attention?
Juniper Russo: I published an article with the vaccine advocacy nonprofit “Voices for Vaccines.” The article got a lot of attention when it was first published last year, then a resurgence of attention in the midst of the measles outbreak.
TP: Which media outlets have you been interviewed by?
JR: I had interviews aired and published with NPR, the Toronto Sun/CBC, Al Jazeera America, and the Wall Street Journal. I also had scheduled interviews with the BBC, Fox News, and CNN, but each of those were pushed aside because of breaking news in the Middle East.
TP: How long were you an “anti-vaxxer?”
JR: I was only adamantly anti-vaccine for a few months in 2008, when I was pregnant with my first and there was a lot of hype going around about MMR, and even then I had a sneaking suspicion that I was wrong. I was “on the fence” and willing to accept a few vaccines for a couple of years after that.
TP: What changed your mind?
JR: It was a combination of things. One was just growing up—realizing that I’d made an ignorant decision because I was young and stupid and prone to believing misinformation on the Internet. Another was exposure of Andrew Wakefield’s study as fraudulent. When I first started questioning vaccines, there weren’t a lot of resources to answer my questions and concerns.
Now, there’s a lot more information available to concerned or confused parents. It was also, of course, my daughter’s diagnosis of developmental delays and my realization that I had done absolutely nothing to cause them.
[Author’s Note: The Wakefield “study” is the only one to ever find a link between vaccines and autism. It was later discredited and Wakefield barred from practicing medicine.]
TP: What response did you get from other mothers in your circle? Were you able to sway any?
JR: I’m happy to say that I’ve swayed several. I knew a lot of fence-sitters who credited me with changing their minds. I’ve also gotten a lot of stigma and backlash from other parents, some of whom are relatively close friends of mine. It hurts, but I think that the important goal of saving kids’ lives is worth losing a few friends for.
TP: Your daughter is an absolute delight and smart as a whip. Why do you think people fear autism so much that they would risk their child’s health to avoid it? Is this issue about misunderstanding autism as well as misunderstanding vaccines?
JR: Yes, I think that stereotypes and misunderstandings of autism are a huge part of the problem. I have seen people describe autistic children as “soulless” and “monsters.” It’s not just extremely offensive; it’s inaccurate. Autistic children are usually bright, happy, healthy, affectionate, caring people; they just have unconventional ways of expressing it.
TP: What about the HPV vaccine? The one that Michelle Bachmann and Rand Paul have both claimed would cause mental illness?
JR: It’s ridiculous, and I think a lot of the stigma about the HPV vaccine is rooted in Puritan sexism and homophobia (since women and gay men are by far the most common victims of HPV-related cancer). There is no scientific evidence that Gardasil causes mental illness. And honestly? Even if it did, I’d prefer to have a have a kid who needs Paxil than a kid who is dead of cancer.
If you’d like to see Juniper’s interviews, they’re all available on the sites mentioned above. You can also check out her new FaceBook endeavor, “Back From Nature,” which she started with other two other moms, Maranda Dynda and Megan Sandlin. “Back From Nature” is a gathering place for parents that have found their way out of the world of pseudo-science and “alternative” medicine and embraced evidence-based parenting.