A Vermont mother who once considered herself staunchly anti-immunization now fully supports vaccines, she told New England Cable News.
"I was wrong," said Sarah Donegan of Shelburne. "I was definitely wrong."
Donegan, a software consultant, said she used to believe a natural approach to health was better, and she sought out naturopathic care providers for herself and her children, Sophie and Eleanor. She said friends in Oregon, whom she described as "granola," made her feel certain that the naturopathic approach was better than a pharmaceutical one.
After she moved to Vermont, where she had gone to high school and college, Donegan said she opted out of getting Sophie and Eleanor the normally-required immunizations to enter public school. Those shots cover a host of diseases such as measles, polio, whooping cough, and diphtheria.
Vermont parents are allowed, under state law, to opt out of receiving shots for either religious or philosophical reasons. Donegan said she used the philosophical exemption.
Vermont Health Department numbers showed 3,480 kindergartners through twelfth graders were exempted from at least one immunization during the 2013-2014 school year based on their parents' personal philosophies. There were 399 kindergartners with philosophical exemptions from one or more vaccines, the data showed. Both figures represent sums of students in public and private schools, the Health Department noted.
Donegan told NECN that her opinions on traditional medicine started to change after her children experienced serious medical conditions, including a bad cut and a double kidney infection, both of which the mother said required the intervention of traditional medicine instead of naturopathic care.
Then, an outbreak of whooping cough in Vermont a few years ago led Donegan to rethink her stance on vaccines, she said.
"I actually found myself a little bit nervous to take my kids out to very public places like the grocery store or movie theaters where they could be in close contact with people who could potentially give them whooping cough," Donegan recalled.
Donegan said she did extensive research on the topic of vaccines, which turned around her distrust of vaccines. She said previously-held views began to disappear, including ones that children’s bodies can’t handle multiple shots and that "natural" immunity was better than vaccines.
"At the end of the day, I couldn't deny that the science is there that vaccines are safe," Donegan said, noting that she had her girls fully vaccinated at ages 11 and 13.
Immunizations are still in the national spotlight with the Centers for Disease Control tracking a growing number of measles cases. The CDC recently said it documented 121 cases in 17 states and Washington D.C. between Jan. 1 and Feb. 6. None of the reported cases is in New England.
"Measles is literally a plane ride away," warned the CDC's Dr. Anne Schuchat this week.
In the wake of the measles outbreak, some states, including Vermont, are now debating ending their childhood vaccine exemption policies, including the philosophical exemption Donegan previously used.
"This is really not a decision about parental choice," Sen. Kevin Mullin, R-Rutland County, said last week, announcing he plans to re-introduce a bill to eliminate the philosophical exemption that did not pass as drafted in 2012. "This is about how to best protect everyone in society."
Opponents of the idea to eliminate the philosophical exemption insist government needs to butt out of personal medical choices.
"The vast majority of parents do vaccinate, but for the parents that are selectively vaccinating or even delaying, they need this exemption," Jennifer Stella of the Vermont Coalition for Vaccine Choice said last week.
As NECN reported last Thursday, Gov. Peter Shumlin, D-Vt., strongly urges parents to seek out vaccines but does not support the elimination of the philosophical exemption. The following statement came from Scott Coriell, Gov. Shumlin's deputy chief of staff:
"The Governor believes that every child in Vermont should be vaccinated against deadly diseases, not only to protect them but also to protect others. He does not believe that there is any excuse for not being vaccinated. When it comes to the question of forcing those parents who refuse to follow common sense to do so, the legislature had that debate in 2012 and a bipartisan majority in the legislature passed a bill that requires enhanced education for parents and reporting on vaccination rates. The Governor signed that bill. The state also has the authority to ban unvaccinated children from school in the event of an outbreak. While the Governor believes there is no excuse to forgo vaccinations, he thinks we need to be extremely careful about passing laws that put the state in the position of making decisions for children without parental consent."
Donegan told NECN she regrets not getting her kids the shots right from the very beginning.
"It was too much evidence to deny," she said. "[My daughters] made it through just fine because we were standing on the shoulders of people who had vaccinated their kids."
The Vermont Department of Health encourages parents to go to a website it maintains called It’s OK to Ask. That site aims to answer parents' questions about childhood immunizations.