Doctor agonizes over parents' stubornness on vaccinations

It may be decades later, but Dr. Elizabeth Baskerville still cries when she remembers the little girl. Four years old. Dead of meningitis.

The day she read the news in the paper, the child’s name had sounded familiar. Baskerville went to her office to see if there was a file. Sure enough, she had written in her notes that she had seen the girl as a one-year-old. At that appointment, the child’s mother had decided to wait on vaccination. She said she’d think about it. She hadn’t come back.

Baskerville only hopes the woman doesn’t remember refusing that vaccine. “As a parent, how do you get through that?” she asks. “If you know you could have prevented something and you lose your child, how do you ever get over that?”

Baskerville, 69, has worked as a pediatrician for 40 years, most of that time in Santa Cruz and Capitola. During the first two decades of her career, she said, she saw four to six cases of meningitis every year. Some of the children were left deaf, some brain-damaged or paralyzed or with seizure disorders.

Then a series of meningitis vaccines were invented, and she stopped having so many frightening vigils in the hospital. Along with the eradication of smallpox – also by vaccination – she calls the meningitis vaccines “the most wonderful thing that happened in my practice life.”

In the late 1990s, after the prestigious British medical journal Lancet published an article purporting to link vaccines with autism, Baskerville noticed more local parents refusing to vaccinate their children. That article turned out to be based on fabricated evidence, and the journal published a retraction of its contents. 

But many parents remain afraid. Baskerville understands their hesitation - she knows they want to do what’s best for their children. She tries to coax them into vaccinating against the most serious, most prevalent diseases without being pushy or judgmental.

“They’re trying to do their best, and what we have to offer them is our caring, our education, our personal experience and our desire to help them make good decisions,” she said. “We can’t make the decisions for them. And if we push, then why would they listen to us?”

Still, she never loses her sense of urgency about vaccines – or her memory of the diseases they prevent. And she never forgets that little girl.

“I thought, ‘is there something different I could have said?’” she says, her voice dropping to a whisper as she starts to cry. “All these years. It never stops hurting.”

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