I work with children, and I have small children. I have a duty to make sure I take health into careful and great consideration; part of that is making sure my family is up to date on their vaccines. How do I maintain a friendship with a good friend who I just found out doesn’t vaccinate her children? How do I even bring it up? It’s so controversial and personal. Where do I go?
On the one hand, it’s personal. On the other hand, herd immunity is real and a significant piece of public health. One of the biggest problem with the current anti-vaxxer movement (and there are many) is the idea that vaccination is a personal choice to be made by individuals. Vaccination is unlike other parenting choices, where I would encourage you to live and let live, not to pass judgment and accept that everyone has their own style.
However, when one person chooses not to vaccinate her children, she actually puts other children at risk, and you don’t have to tacitly accept that for the sake of a friendship. The only real exception is if her kids have medical conditions that make vaccines unsafe for them, in which case they actually depend on herd immunity more than the rest of us. But for the rest of us, vaccines are safe, they are recommended by doctors and they have been saving lives for hundreds of years. You know these things, but I pretty much guarantee your friend doesn’t care what the science says.
Rather than trying to convince her to change her views and vaccinate her kids — tempting, I know — come up with a specific set of guidelines that you feel will allow you to continue a relationship with her if, in fact, that’s what you want. Consider sharing it over email rather than in person so as to avoid a back-and-forth verbal battle which could end a friendship.
You could say, “I was surprised to learn you don’t vaccinate your kids. While I understand you believe this is a personal choice, I believe it endangers people far beyond your family.
As a parent myself and someone entrusted with other people’s kids, I have to do what is best for my family and my professional life. Unfortunately, that means your kids can’t come over to my house anymore, now that I know they’re not vaccinated. It also means that you can’t be around my kids.”
Depending on your specific circumstances, I would also encourage you to come up with a policy for your workplace. If you want to create as healthy an environment as possible, as well as communicating your values, you could say something like, “Children are encouraged to participate as long as they have no signs of contagions for 24 hours and are up to date on their vaccines.”
Finally, despite all of this, and despite my zero attempts to hide my lack of empathy with anti-vaxxers, remember that it is impossible to protect your children from everything. You know this one friend is an anti-vaxxer, but what about that other family on the playground? What about the gross thing your kid touched at the doctor’s office? The car that ran the stop sign? The million other hidden dangers that keep parents up at night?
Limiting contact with this friend feels proactive and like an important stand, but also you are in contact with hundreds of people every day who could be sharing all manner of germs and risks. That’s not to make you scared, but it is to say you can do your best, and that’s still only a nominal stab at maintaining health and safety. With that in mind, hug your kids close, get them their shots, tell your friend you have to limit contact, communicate your values around vaccines to others, stay home when you’re sick and wash your hands.