February 14, 2022

FIRST PERSON | How I unlearned my anti-vaxx upbringing and started to trust the experts | CBC News

This First Person piece is by Kelsey MacDonald, mother of four in Melfort, Sask. For more information about CBC’s First Person stories, please see the FAQ


Growing up in an anti-vaccination home leads to far more than just mistrust of vaccinations. It affects your attitudes toward the entire health-care system. It’s a danger that persists until you choose to rewire your own mind. 

I know what it takes. This was my own history until one patient health-care worker was willing to help me work through the rubble and build a solid foundation of trust in our medical system.

In my early teenage years, my parents began listening to dangerous teachings from extremist faith leaders who preached that only belief could heal. If it wasn’t working, apparently you just weren’t believing hard enough. This pushed them away from the health-care system and pharmaceuticals. I don’t recall if I received my childhood vaccinations. I know that my younger siblings didn’t.

I remember my mother getting angry after another unvaccinated family exposed my infant brother to a child with whooping cough. She never came to the conclusion that vaccines could have been the answer to these problems.

Kelsey MacDonald says she was exposed regularly as a child to messages about the supposed dangers of vaccines. (Submitted by Kelsey MacDonald)

As I grew older, I wasn’t able to separate my mistrust of vaccines from the rest of the health-care system. Even when I became pregnant for the first time, I had so much anxiety around my appointments with doctors.

As a new mom, I declined checkups and blocked calls from public health. There wasn’t any way I was going to let them bully me into “poisoning” my child. After all, my siblings and I were fine, so vaccines must not be needed. It was the same story for my second child.

By the time I had my third child, I had moved away from my family. With a growing family of my own, I needed extra help and decided to allow a public health nurse to see my child for the first time.

I was paired with a wonderful nurse who was kind and understanding. She was the first person who asked me questions about why I felt how I did. I had no good answers. These notions were just what I had learned growing up. My parents had taught me popular (now fully debunked) misinformation about vaccines causing learning disabilities or conditions such as autism. 

I realized I had no real basis for my beliefs.

That nurse continually reached out to me after our visits, mailed out information sheets as well as calling and talking through any question I had.

It was a relief to be in contact with a public health nurse who listened to my story and kept any judgments she may have had to herself. After talking to her, I reluctantly got my children booked in for all vaccinations.

A mistrust of vaccines led to a mistrust of the health-care system, which saw Kelsey MacDonald avoid routine checkups and block calls from public health during her first pregnancy. (Submitted by Kelsey MacDonald)

For weeks after each of their vaccination appointments, I would wake up to check their breathing, worrying about the vaccines killing them. I questioned any delay I thought I saw in their development, worrying it might be because I had given my children autism by getting them vaccinated.

This was all based on completely false information I had heard most of my life. It was hard to let go of the fear that had permeated my mind.

By the time my fourth child was getting vaccinated, I felt like a pro. It had all become pretty routine.

Then COVID-19 hit.

Fears came flooding back

Only three years or so into my vaccine journey, my old fears of the medical community came flooding back. I was suspicious of how these vaccines were supposedly “made in record time.” 

I found myself in the camp of wanting to wait a few years to see what happened. 

Then you know what I did? I stopped doing my own research.

Who am I, a barely Grade 10-educated person, to find information that the professionals weren’t finding? Instead I began consuming the research and studies done by people who trained and studied for years in those fields. They could discover the truth much more successfully than any blogger or YouTuber.

I’ve been able to put my trust in the true experts and unlearn old ways of thinking.

Growing up in an anti-vaxx home has given me perspective on the damage that environment causes. It goes far deeper than questioning vaccines. It undermines faith in our entire health-care system.

I fully believe vaccines are and should always be a personal choice, but a choice isn’t a choice when it is made based on misinformation.


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