Shortly after posting on her Facebook page that she was looking to take her toddler to a chickenpox party and expose him to the virus, Hollie Redinger realized she was in the middle of a pediatric health minefield.
To her, Mason was active, followed a healthy diet and had an immune system ready for the challenge of what many people still see as a relatively common childhood illness. But to many pro-vaccine parents, she was taking a major risk with an 18-month-old's health.
"People try to scare you into thinking if everyone were to stop vaccinating, our country would be in a lot of trouble," the Elgin mom said. "But the real trouble is in not having enough people who are a bit more dedicated parents. It all goes back to nutrition and general health. We're supposed to be able to fight these illnesses off.
"People are so afraid of death in the Western world. At this point, the push for vaccinations is more about money than saving people."
Mason is fully unvaccinated. No shots to guard against polio. No injections to block the measles. No needle pokes to prevent hepatitis B infection.
"He is a happy, healthy boy," Redinger said. "He barely even gets the sniffles."
Though decidedly in the minority, Redinger isn't alone in her beliefs. While 98 percent of school-age children met the mandated immunization requirements in Illinois, there were still more than 68,000 of their peers who didn't get their shots in at least one disease category during the 2012-13 school year.
It is difficult to pinpoint why so many parents are out of compliance, given the pressure to conform. Illinois school officials can prevent a child from coming to school until the shots are obtained. Parents even can be charged with permitting truancy if they don't have their child immunized and the school prevents attendance. The penalty can be up to 30 days in jail and a $500 fine.
But some doctors don't disagree with her. Redinger and other parents could rattle off about a dozen doctors supportive of forgoing or at least delaying vaccinations. Despite that reality, most studies conclude school vaccinations recommended in Illinois and elsewhere are good for children.
"If you look around, you are going to find research papers, arguments that say this vaccine or that one can cause a problem," said Dr. Kenneth Soyemi, a pediatrician and senior medical adviser to the Illinois Department of Public Health. "But if you look at the quality of the research, you'll see there are no real clinical trials that support their statements. You always have to look at the methodology. Anyone can publish a paper.
"There is no study that associates that getting a whole batch of vaccines in one bunch predisposes anyone to developmental disorders or autism. But you will find that argument."
Soyemi said no one should be forced to get a shot if they don't want one.
"That said, they are the most cost-effective way of preventing disease that we have," Soyemi said. "Look at measles. If there is an outbreak, you have to look at how many other people can one person infect. It has a very high reproductive number. Now imagine if all of a sudden a whole pool of people, like in a school, were exposed to measles how many they would infect. It's going to spread like wildfire."
But parents like Redinger aren't sold. They look at the number of possible adverse effects listed right on the labels of the vaccines and say, "Why take a chance?" Those effects include fever, seizures and even death in very rare instances. But it's because of those rare instances that the federal government created a tax on the vaccines administered to children. There have been 3,278 compensation awards paid out of the fund since the first claims were filed in 1989. Those awards total more than $2.5 billion to the people who filed the claims and an additional $100.9 million paid to the attorneys, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Soyemi said many of those negative experiences can't be directly tied to the vaccines. At the same time, federal officials haven't ruled them out as the cause. And others, such as getting a chickenpox rash shortly after receiving the vaccine, are a genuine known risk.
"Let's just say somebody ends up with a fever or even a seizure," Soyemi said. "That may very well be just because they are a human being on this earth that that happened, not because of the vaccine."
The American Academy of Pediatrics in Elk Grove Village is active in promoting vaccinations. Annie Boesen, manager of immunization initiatives for the chapter, said there is no disagreement among the true experts.
"Immunizations are one of the most effective public health interventions that have ever been discovered," she said. "But one of the problems is they are working so well that nobody is afraid of getting something like polio anymore."
Boesen said the problem with people forgoing vaccines is the impact of the return of diseases on others who didn't make that same choice.
"There are children with leukemia who can't get vaccinated because they have no immune system," Boesen said. "They get exposed to measles, and they die. We have to think as a community. Those people, those babies, those elderly people or people with cancer -- we have to think of them as well."
But there are medical professionals with a sympathetic ear to parents who are skeptical of vaccines.
Dr. Sean Rardin looks at immunizations as a medical concern with many unknowns. Rardin is a Naperville-based, board certified, family physician with a larger than average clientele who have chosen to opt out of vaccinations or who follow an alternative schedule for receiving the shots.
"The most important thing for me is vaccine freedom," Rardin said.
He believes many of his peers don't accept patients not willing to follow the government recommendations for immunizations out of concern for the children but also out of liability fears.
"Whenever there is an illness outbreak, the local health authority investigates how this illness happened," Rardin said. "Most of the time, someone in the chain was not vaccinated, and that becomes an easy target. Some pediatricians worry about ending up as part of an article in the Daily Herald as having a child they treat being responsible for an illness outbreak."
What most pediatricians aren't willing to discuss, Rardin said, is that vaccines don't always work as well as advertised.
"Different kids have different risks," he said. "Any vaccine that is manufactured is going to have a batch that is produced that, for whatever reason, ends up being more or less effective than the rest of the doses. And we are all going to have patients with different outcomes because everyone's immune system is different."
Vaccines are marketed and tested based on the benefits to the average person in the test groups for that drug, Rardin said. But in the larger population, not everyone is average.
"It's hard to find information out there that takes in all the risks and benefits," Rardin said. "In reality, there's a lot we don't know. I do recommend vaccinating the children in my practice, but I approach it with a little bit of humility.
"There are vaccines that were on the market 10 years ago that are no longer out there because of problems. So we are all making decisions in our practices with less-than-perfect information."
The trends Rardin sees in his practice are a move away from forgoing all vaccinations in favor of some form of alternative schedule. Often that means introducing one vaccination at a time, a process that makes sense to Rardin. One of the reasons doctors moved to batch doses was because many parents don't bring their children to the doctor as often as they should. Another is the number of recommended vaccinations has dramatically increased over the years. Because of that, multiple shots became the norm so kids could get the most out of each visit.
"The problem with that is if a child has an allergic reaction, and I just gave him three or four injections, then I don't know which vaccine is the problem," Rardin said.
Hollie Redinger has another child, a 10-year-old daughter, who did receive all the initial vaccinations as prescribed by the state. Like her younger brother, Mason, she is also healthy. But also like Mason, Maddie is now needle-free.
She says none of her friends at school ask her about not getting her shots, nor do they treat her any differently. Redinger said that more likely occurs among adults. Through various Facebook groups and websites, she is on an often daily mission to get more information about vaccines and alternative approaches into parents' hands.
As she hands Mason some gluten-free snacks, she says her motivation is not anti-medicine, but pro-health.
"The info about vaccines is not out there like it should be," Redinger said. "But to parents who aren't willing to be open-minded and educate themselves, I say don't look at my kids and think they may get something that will kill your child. If your vaccines work, then you should have nothing to worry about, right?"