As I was writing Unlocking Jake: The Story of a Rabies Vaccine, Autism & Recovery in Panera, striking up a conversation with another latte addict about autism and vaccines became an everyday event. After sharing a short version of my grandson’s story, I often heard: “I’m so scared. My daughter starts kindergarten this fall, and I know she will have to have all those vaccines to go to school.” I would usually ask, “Do you know that you can get an exemption from vaccines?” More often than not, the answer was no. So I would proceed to tell them that before Jake started preschool, my daughter Ann visited the Virginia Department of Health Web site and found a religious exemption form. It stated:
The administration of immunizing agents conflicts with the above named Student’s/my religious tenets or practices. I understand, that in the occurrence of an outbreak, potential epidemic or epidemic of a vaccine-preventable disease in my/my child’s school, the State Health Commissioner may order my/my child’s exclusion from school, for my/my child’s own protection, until the danger has passed. 
Ann printed out the form, signed it, and delivered it to the school. There were no questions. Not, “Which church do you attend?” or “How often do you go?” No proof necessary from the church. It was that simple in the state of Virginia.
In 2009, a homeopathic pediatrician offered to write a medical exemption for Jake—without being asked. As she explained, it would be a safeguard if Virginia ever took away religious exemptions. It went something like this:
Jake is a child who is recovering from autism and now has severe ADHD with residual autistic traits. Further vaccines could push him back into autism.
Jake’s pediatrician in Winchester—and the school—accepted the medical exemption without question.
There Are Options
Many people don’t realize this, but all states have some sort of vaccine exemption. As a matter of fact, 48 have religious and/or philosophical in addition to medical. The other two, West Virginia and Mississippi, just have medical. I can’t say that a religious exemption is easy to obtain in other states. I’ve only dealt with Virginia. I suggest checking out the National Vaccine Information Center Web site  to find out what is offered in each state. I also can’t say that it’s always easy to find a doctor who will write a medical exemption. I do know there are Web sites with lists of doctors who will see children whose parents don’t want to vaccinate them or prefer an alternate schedule.  You can Google something like “vaccine-friendly doctors,” “vaccine-free doctors,” or “homeopathic doctors” and your state—perhaps these kinds of doctors may be willing to write a medical exemption for school.
Bottom line: It is possible to say no to vaccines.
And There Are Consequences
Refusing to have your child vaccinated may open up a whole can of worms. Because it’s also possible—very possible—that your pediatrician will throw you out of the practice if you won’t adhere to the CDC’s recommended immunization schedule.
This happened to my middle daughter when her son was born 4½ years ago. After seeing Jake’s regression into autism following the rabies vaccines, she had decided not to vaccinate her child, or at least not while he was a baby. She took him to the same group of doctors Jake had always seen. They willingly saw him at his first checkup. By the second or third when it was clear that she wasn’t going to give in and vaccinate him, she was told that if she didn’t follow the CDC’s schedule, she would have to find another doctor. Her son was discharged. Kicked out of the practice.
I was mortified. I called the four pediatric groups in Winchester to discuss their vaccine policies. Three of the four immediately connected me to an office manager. I was given the same spiel, word for word. Pretty sure they were reading a script. “All our patients are vaccinated. Vaccines prevent horrible diseases and, in some cases, death.” My question: “If all your patients are vaccinated, why is my unvaccinated grandson a problem?” Their answer: “We’re worried about the heart patient in the waiting room.” To which I replied, “If your heart patient is vaccinated and the vaccines work, there should be no problem.” By this point, the office managers were becoming irritated. “Am I understanding correctly,” I asked, “that Dr. So-and-So won’t see patients who aren’t vaccinated?” The response: “That is correct.”
The fourth practice connected me to the office manager, but after I asked about their vaccine policy, I was told that one of the doctors would return my call at the end of the day. And one did. Promptly at 5:00. He wanted to know why I was concerned. I told him what happened to my grandson after the rabies vaccines. Same response: “All our patients are vaccinated. Vaccines prevent horrible diseases and, in some cases, death.” And no, he would not see patients who weren’t vaccinated. During this same time, a writer with our local paper was working on an article about Jake, and this particular pediatrician was interviewed for the story. By the time it ran, he had decided that he would accept patients who were vaccinated on an alternate schedule—starting the shots a little later, spacing them out—as long as they were eventually fully vaccinated. Fortunately, my daughter was able to find a doctor in a medical practice who was willing to see her son and, now, her daughter. Both are completely unvaccinated. It took numerous phone calls and perseverance, but she found a doctor for her children.
What the AAP Tells Doctors
Although the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) does not advocate pediatricians tossing out unvaccinated patients, they do provide a plethora of information for doctors about how to talk to parents. Their advice includes the statement that “making time to talk about vaccines may be stressful for you,” along with these four key points for parents who question whether vaccines cause autism:
(1) patient and empathetic reassurance that you understand that their infant’s health is their top priority, and it also is your top priority, so putting children at risk of vaccine-preventable diseases without scientific evidence of a link between vaccines and autism is a risk you are not willing to take;
(2) your knowledge that the onset of regressive autism symptoms often coincides with the timing of vaccines but is not caused by vaccines [strange coincidence];
(3) your personal and professional opinion that vaccines are very safe; and
(4) your reminder that vaccine-preventable diseases, which may cause serious complications and even death, remain a threat. 
And on and on, ad nauseam.
What Doctors Could Do
I said this in my book, and I’ll say it here:
Pediatricians need to stand up and admit what I can’t help but think many of them must know is true. They need to stop ignoring and discounting reports of regression following vaccines. A smart pediatrician would disassociate himself from a practice that is throwing patients out, leaving them with no doctor. He would open his own practice and take vaccine safety concerns seriously and welcome parents who don’t want to vaccinate their children or prefer an alternate schedule. If he administers vaccines, he would start them later, spread them out, only give one at a time (versus the three-in-one MMR or the recently proposed hexavalent, or six-in-one, vaccine), and do everything possible to strengthen these kids’ immune systems. He would also check children’s titers after a vaccine (say, the first DTaP) to see if their bodies have developed immunity before giving them unnecessary additional doses. And he would consider potential risks (for example, a child who is sick or has had a previous reaction to a vaccine).
Backing up a little, what was especially interesting to me was the conversation I had with the office manager at Jake’s pediatrician’s office. I wanted to know if he was going to be discharged from the practice like my other grandson. The manager pulled Jake’s chart and said, “I see he was fully vaccinated through 15 months old, so he should be fine.” “Really?” I asked. “So, if that’s the case, then why do kids have to get all those other shots before they go to kindergarten?” She hemmed and hawed around, finally saying I would have to discuss that with the doctor.
This all made sense when, in 2009, the same doctor who gave Jake a medical exemption for all future vaccines had his titers tested. Keep in mind that it had been 5 years since he had a vaccine. He was vaccinated according to the schedule, from the 24-hour-old hepatitis B shot through 29 more doses by 15 months. FIVE years later, guess what? He was still immune to measles, mumps, rubella, diphtheria, tetanus, and hep B. My oldest daughter asked her pediatrician to check her little girl’s titers during a routine checkup. His reply: “That’s expensive, and insurance won’t cover it.” She told him, “I’ll pay for it.” And his answer: “We don’t do that.”
I really don’t get it. Why can’t our doctors just consider, as Jenny McCarthy says, “Too many, too soon,” and “One size doesn’t fit all”? Speaking of Jenny, people can put her down all they want. They laugh when she says she got her degree from theUniversity of Google. They say there is no “science” to support a connection between vaccines and autism. Of course, you can’t believe everything you read on the Internet. But here’s what IS true. Thousands of stories by parents who, just like Jenny, watched their children disappear after receiving a vaccine. Call the stories anecdotal. Call them whatever you want. These parents aren’t crazy. They know their children better than anyone. And they watched what happened to them after a vaccine. Thousands and thousands of parents. Not just one. Not just a handful. Thousands. Coincidence? I think not. Also true: the documented cases of adverse reactions to childhood vaccines on our GOVERNMENT Web site, VAERS (Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System).  And the cases on our GOVERNMENT Federal Vaccine Court Web site. 
To Sum Up
Do your homework. Find out which vaccine exemptions are available in your state. Look for a doctor who respects and addresses your concerns about vaccines. Make phone calls. Talk to other parents. Check out the Web sites I mentioned earlier. Don’t give up. Remember: It’s YOUR child. You DO have rights.
Photo Credit: E Flemming