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Home » One mother’s crusade against antibiotics–it’s complicated

One mother’s crusade against antibiotics–it’s complicated


This is a guest post by Karen Ernst, who is the parent-leader of Voices for Vaccines, a parent-led organization that supports and advocates for on-time vaccination and the reduction of vaccine-preventable disease. Karen is the mother of three boys and the wife of a military officer, living in Minnesota. 

I could be the mother-in-charge of the such the anti-antibiotic movement.* I’m the perfect candidate. When my son was five years old, he had an honest-to-goodness severe reaction to amoxicillin.

It all began with a sinus infection. The doctor prescribed him his second course of amoxicillin, and he took it for nine days without incident. But on day ten, his body sprouted hives–big, ugly, firm hives. I kept a watchful but not worried eye on his bumps as they sprouted here and there around his body.

And then a hive appeared on his forehead. Because the pediatrician’s office was about to close, I called the nurseline, and she told me to watch and make sure his breathing was okay. I watched as long as I could, growing increasingly worried as the hives did not go away, and finally decided to bring him into the ER when a hive appeared on his lip. (Our insurance makes urgent care nearly impossible to use.)

The ER doctors and nurses were kind and assured me that it was good I had brought him in–better safe than sorry when it comes to allergic reactions appearing so close to an airway. The doctor agreed that his hives seemed unusual–firm and concerning–so they gave him a dose of a steroid and told me to give him Benadryl.

The hives went away for two days, but they came back, and with them came joint pain. My son began limping around the house and reported that his knees ached. So back to the ER we went. This time around, the doctor (a different doctor) was less concerned and told me that we just needed to wait for the amoxicillin to work its way out of his system.

But another two days later, he was laying in bed crying, unwilling to put weight on his legs.  By the time we arrived at the ER, I ditched the car at the front entrance and carried him in. He was screaming in pain. The triage nurse was so alarmed by his screams that she brought us straight back to an exam room and grabbed a doctor. After tests and examination, the doctor diagnosed a serum sickeness-like reaction to the amoxicillin he had taken. He was prescribed a full round of steroids and a prescription-strength antihistamine, which we filled at 3 am before leaving the hospital.

Frightening things happen to children, but I tell this story not because it is exceptionally frightening. I tell it because of what did not happen. I did not go on a crusade against amoxicilin or antibiotics. While this son has never received a -cillin antibiotic** again (nor have I because I, too, am allergic), my youngest son has. I do have a fear of giving my younger son amoxicillin, but I always discuss that fear with a pediatrician prescribing it and ask them to help me put the risk into perspective. I know that my oldest son’s reaction was a very rare occurrance.

In the same way, real reactions to vaccines occur. I’m not talking about the ones promoted by the anti-vaccine rumor mill. Autism, asthma, being cross-eyed, and being short are not caused by vaccines. But allergic reactions or other reactions can occur, albeit very rarely.


David Salamone suffered one such rare reaction. The Oral Polio Vaccine, which was the vaccine of choice to prevent polio in the last half of the 20th Century, can cause full-blown polio in one out of every 2.4 million people who receives it. David Salamone was the one.

In the PBS NOVA special “Vaccines: Calling the Shots,” David Salamone explains how he feels about vaccines:

I’m not against vaccinations. I’m pro-vaccinations. We had thousands of people contracting polio prior to the vaccination. We came out with the vaccination, and that number decreased significantly. So less people are getting sick, less people are getting affected, and that’s a good thing.

The anti-vaccine movement is not fueled by people whose children have suffered real vaccine reactions. Children who have suffered allergic reactions or other rare side effects to vaccines and are unable to receive more vaccines deserve the protection of a highly vaccinated population.

The anti-antibiotic movement doesn’t exist because we give antibiotics to sick children to treat illnesses that we can observe. Vaccines are trickier. We give vaccines to well children, and we cannot observe with our own eyes how these vaccines protect our children. We can’t see our children’s immune mount a defense against attenuated vaccine antigens and create memory cells to defeat possible encounters with fully virulent viruses. But we can watch as our children do not get measles, diphtheria, and other diseases that were once the scourge of childhoods across our country. Let’s make sure they are not a scourge again.

*Legitimate reasons to oppose the overuse of antibiotics exist. As the CDC tells us, antibiotics are inappropriate for viral or non-bacterial infections. Antibiotics save lives by curing bacterial infections.

**Technically, this class of antibiotics are called Penams or Penicillins. There are over 25 different antibiotics in this class, and generally, a reaction to one probably indicates a reaction to all of them.

Michael Simpson

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