By Cathy Jameson
A few weekends ago my husband and I were sitting near his shed while the kids played in the backyard. He’d been on a business trip the week prior, so we were catching up on news, bills and future plans. Toward the end of our conversation, I shared some sad news. A friend told me that her child was recently diagnosed with autism. I had just finished rambling about how much we had paid for some of Ronan’s treatments when I said, “Oh, and listen. S__’s son went to the specialists, and he has autism.” I didn’t actually say autism; I whispered it like the mother did in the dinner scene in “St. Elmo’s Fire.” About to reveal bad news, the actress leans toward her dinner guests and whispers, “Cancer.” Did I just do that? Whisper the bad news?
I can’t fully describe the emotions that take over when I hear about another autism diagnosis. It is similar to the emotions I feel when I see the flu vaccine advertisements on television--disbelief. I hardly ever get to watch a TV show. When I do, it's after I’ve pretty much mentally called it quits for the day. All I want is for some show to temporarily whisk me off to LaLa land where I do not have to make decisions or get caught up in real life struggles.
Watching TV shouldn’t have me go from zero to sixty toward another emotion—anger. But that's exactly what happens when my elusive TV time is interrupted by some pharmaceutically funded advertisements. Ads that tell me how wonderfully wonderful the flu shot is, how quick, harmless and cheap it is. Why, the cheeriest of all cheery actors and actresses are proudly showing me their band-aided “badge” on their freshly vaccinated arm--looks perfectly harmless, right? Or is it?
The flu vaccine, like some other vaccines, is not one size fits all. Not that a Pu-Pu platter of choices exists when it comes to the flu shot, but there are some options. The options are the ones you won’t likely find in a 60 second television commercial. Newspaper headlines won’t be shouting, “Hey, ask for the alternative vaccine, why don’t you!” Nor will you learn about them from a reader board at the local drug store that's been advertising the seasonal/H1N1 combination flu shots. You probably won't be given options, but you may get lucky and be offered a $3 discount on your total purchase if you do roll up your sleeve at the drug store. Woo-frickin-hoo.
I want to bang my head and scream expletives out the window when I drive by these kinds of operations. Maybe I should hold off on screaming and instead direct some questions to the average American shopper who is about to roll up his sleeve. I imagine this shopper hasn’t read the things I’ve had to read every day for the last seven years since my son's vaccine injury. So I’ll make sure I cover the basics: Do you know about single vial vaccines? Do you know what thimerosal is? Do you know that thimerosal is in the flu shot typically offered to the public? Do you know that you can ask for thimerosal-free vaccines? Do you, or someone in your family, have a history of allergies? Do you know that some vaccines are egg-based and some use latex in the production? Do you read the labels on the foods you buy? Would you think to examine the label (package insert) on the vaccine as well? Then, I’d walk away muttering to myself while screaming in my head, “Just don’t do it!”
Now it's Fall 2010, and like clockwork the flu shot advertisements abound. You can't walk into a Big Box store or corner drug store without being bombarded by "fabulous" flu shot offers. But what I want to know is when the flu shooters are going to offer me and other parents what we really need - information! I wonder if I'll ever be able to just walk over to the flu shot techie to ask questions that test their knowledge and their willingness to give me real information. Could I really do it - play the ignorant mom just to see what they say? But the thing is I'm not the ignorant mom anymore. Ronan's injury changed that, so I am armed with helpful information. What of the parents who just don’t know more than what those ubiquitous commercials and displays tell them? Adverse reactions do happen. Exemptions to the vaccine schedule do exist. Plus flu shots are elective, but the excessive advertising doesn’t clarify that. Unless people know to question, how will they ever learn what could be life saving information?
This time of year is usually magical and mystical with an air of happiness floating around my home - as long as I keep the vaccine ads at bay by keeping the TV and radio off. I try to give myself some extra Me time by getting cozy on the couch to read, nap or watch some mindless TV. I guess commercials touting the prevention of the flu by vaccine are pretty mindless, eh? I'm sure I will be immune to hearing about the upcoming flu season by the time we are introduced to the next Hollywood Vaccine Poster Child Wannnabe. But no matter how immune I might be to hearing about the flu, I can't imagine that I will ever be indifferent to the way drug companies work the flu season circuit like the dog and pony show that it is.
I don’t like that I get so worked up about the flu shot, but I like it even less that it hurts so damn bad to hear that another child has been added to the ever-increasing autism spectrum population. If big pharma would donate even a small percentage of their advertising dollars to treatment for people with autism (the result of vaccines or not), I’d more likely buy into their efforts of lending help and health to the public in the form of a vaccine. Sadly, my friend with the newly diagnosed child with autism will soon discover that it will take hundreds of thousands of her own dollars to care for her child’s needs.
Money, services, medicine, equipment, therapy and extra time - these things won’t be handed to her by any public health or government agency or by the cheerful folk from the commercials who advertise affordable and quick "prevention." I want to help this friend handle the changes she and her family will be facing and the fights for services that she'll have to battle. I want to hold her hand through the upheaval because it shouldn't be as hard for her as I know it is going to be. I have thought of hundreds of things I want to tell her, but for now all I can do is sit here and whisper, “I’m so sorry.”
Cathy Jameson is a Contributing Editor for Age of Autism.