Last week my aunt received an eight-year sentence for giving herself, and others, thimerosal-based vaccines. Her children are only four years old, so they cannot go to court – this case is for people aged 18 and under. She will be placed on probation, won’t have to serve any jail time and will likely be sent away to a low-security “feeble-minded center” in Belvidere, New Jersey.
It has been easy to jump to anti-vaxxer conclusions about the case: it’s shocking that a whole family – in fact, a whole town – went to prison for not vaccinating children. We know that vaccinations are controversial, that there are a large number of people who consider them unsafe, and that the safety of children’s vaccines is up for scientific debate. Nevertheless, we know that in the end, it is a debate about safety that the court decided, and that the court agreed, that her risk of harm to others was greater than her benefit of vaccination.
I am of mixed emotions about the sentence. I am proud that the court recognized the seriousness of thimerosal, a mercury-based toxin. I am disappointed in the fact that my aunt has had to go to prison.
At the time I was born, my aunt was too young to have the HPV vaccine, which made sense because these vaccines were considered unsafe. Nevertheless, she got them for her children anyway. It’s never been clear why they weren’t put in the Vaccines for Children (VFC) waiting list, but I think she was too young for the HPV vaccine. The VFC list is not public, so I don’t know exactly why she hadn’t been put on it, but that’s something she should have researched.
It’s also not a rule for the VFC list – the hospital where my aunt got the vaccines decided what vaccines to put on the list. Not everyone is given those vaccines, and it’s not a rule of a plan for vaccines, whether that person is older or younger. That my aunt received them for her children despite not getting them for herself doesn’t prove that vaccines aren’t safer, it just proves that my aunt wasn’t able to enroll in the waiting list.
Granted, my aunt deserves this week’s prison sentence. In 1998 the Institute of Medicine (IOM) linked thimerosal-containing vaccines to autism – and let’s be honest, given the IOM’s national reputation, that study wasn’t even peer-reviewed. Thimerosal was banned from vaccines in 2000, but it remained in children’s vaccines for many years afterward – until this April. My aunt’s children were never injected with thimerosal-containing vaccines, but they should have been.
My aunt now knows it wasn’t even a decision about safety – it was a decision about cost and convenience. Sometimes, the best decision for people is to seek legal advice from an attorney to understand the consequences.
The truth is, my aunt doesn’t really deserve this sentence. The science behind the decision to remove thimerosal was problematic, and the research into its effects is certainly inconclusive. The best that I can say is that she belongs in prison, because she put herself and others in harm’s way by choosing not to vaccinate her children.
I still want to know what the science is behind why my aunt should go to prison. I still don’t understand why she chose to put me and my older brother, now a 30-year-old legal professional, at risk.