This Redditor's Parents Were Anti-Vaxxers, but Then She Grew Up

"I get to make this choice myself now."

Parents make health decisions for their kids, but what if they make those decisions based on bad evidence? That’s what happened to redditor ToddmanHorseboy, whose parents didn’t get her or her two siblings vaccinated when they were children. Now that she’s in her mid-20s, though, she’s in charge of her own healthcare decisions, and after some serious thought about her future — as well as that of her future children — she started off 2019 with a marathon round of immunizations. She posted her very first immunization record on the /r/pics subreddit, where it went viral this week with over 173,000 upvotes and more than 5,000 comments as of this article’s publication.

ToddmanHorseboy didn’t want to give her real name for this article, as she’s received a good bit of hate mail since her post went viral — some redditors have even accused her of shilling for the pharmaceutical industry, a claim she says is “kind of ridiculous.” For the sake of her privacy and safety, we’re referring to her by her Reddit handle, which is a reference to Todd from the TV show Bojack Horseman. “Now everyone thinks I am a guy, and I can’t really blame them for that,” ToddmanHorseboy tells Inverse.

Jokes aside, though, she didn’t take the vaccination decision lightly, especially after a childhood of being told that vaccines were unsafe. Talking to her boyfriend about wanting to have a family of their own someday, she realized that she didn’t want to take the risk of getting pregnant and caring for babies without being vaccinated. So she bit the bullet and went through with every toddler’s worst nightmare:

“Three shots in each arm all in one visit,” says ToddmanHorseboy. “Both arms feel sore, like I have been punched pretty hard on each side.” According to her brand new immunization records, she received the hepatitis A, hepatitis B, tetanus, MMR (measles, mumps, and rubella), varicella (chickenpox), and human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccines this week.

Whew.

For the most part, people in the US get these vaccines as children. A growing number, however, don’t. In some cases, there are good reasons not to get vaccinated — like an allergy to a vaccine component, a severely compromised immune system, or certain pre-existing conditions — but for many children, religious beliefs and scientific misinformation can play major roles in a parent’s decision not to vaccinate. That’s what happened for ToddmanHorseboy and her siblings, whose parents told doctors that vaccines were against their religion. The more salient reason, though, seems to be that her mother believed vaccines cause autism — a belief that gained major traction in the Nineties.

boy receives vaccine
Vaccines are considered routine healthcare for children, but anti-vaccine activists continue to push misinformation about their safety.

In 1998, a team of doctors led by Andrew Wakefield, M.D., published a paper in the prestigious medical journal The Lancet that linked the MMR vaccine to autism. In 2010, The Lancet retracted the paper, citing that “several elements” were incorrect. Wakefield has admitted to fabricating events from the case reports in the paper, and he’s been barred from practicing medicine in the UK, but the damage was already done. And while his paper wasn’t the only factor contributing to anti-vaxx attitudes, it certainly added an element of legitimacy to them. For some believers, the paper’s retraction further supports the notion that the medical establishment is covering up the harmful effects of vaccines, leading more parents in the US to forego vaccines for their children.

These so-called “nonmedical exemptions” for vaccines have skyrocketed, to the point that researchers can map hot zones in the US where preventable illnesses are surging back due to parents choosing not to vaccinate their kids. Despite the ample evidence that vaccines are safe and effective, the Lancet paper’s discredited author still maintains the connection between autism spectrum disorder and the MMR vaccine. In the years since, he has become a leader in the anti-vaccine movement of parents who don’t want their kids to be vaccinated out of fears of the unproven health risks. But what happens once these children grow up?

In the case of ToddmanHorseboy, who now sees the error in her parents’ ways, things actually turned out pretty well. She and her siblings got chickenpox as kids, and they often got the flu, but there are no hard feelings between her and her mother, and she’s confident in her new path.

“I feel good about the independence. It doesn’t seem like it will damage our relationship, she knows I get to make this choice myself now. I am thankful for that,” she says. “I think my parents were doing what they thought was best for us.” Fortunately for ToddmanHorseboy and her siblings, they all survived childhood to make their own decisions.

And they’re not alone. Since the post went viral, she says she has received lots of messages from redditors with similar backgrounds. She hopes they can benefit from her experience and start making well-informed choices.

“I just want those people to know it is not as scary as I thought it would be,” she says. “Talking to my doctor was the first step.”