A Connecticut mom said her life – and the life of her son – changed dramatically seven years ago when her son started having severe reactions to vaccines.
"He had his 15 month shots, included the MMR and hepatitis series and the very next day, I felt like I lost him," said Emily, the mother of two who asked to remain anonymous.
Six months later, her son was diagnosed with autism. He started intensive therapy, but Emily followed her doctor's advice and continued to get him vaccinated. She describes an extreme reaction to the tetanus shot, then the flu vaccine.
"You question yourself when professionals are telling you that there's absolutely no link... it's just coincidence, but when therapists, keeping data on his developments: there is a link, for him, for him... He's having reactions to the shots," she said.
Emily stopped the vaccinations and brought her son to naturopath Jared Skowron for genetic testing, which revealed a rare gene mutation they believe caused the violent reactions to the vaccines.
Among Skowron's patients are dozens of families who choose not to vaccinate their children because of potential side effects.
"Parents don't want to give the vaccine and be the one in 10,000 that has a horrible reaction and has seizures or dies. It's not the germs causing the problem, it's the other ingredients causing the problem," said Skowron.
He explained that ingredients like mercury, which has been removed from most vaccines, and aluminum can cause neurological damage.
Pediatrician Tom Fromson said aluminum is so prevalent in our environment that the argument can be immediately dismissed. He believes there's nothing more important in preventive health care than vaccination.
"The illnesses that they protect against can be so profound that it's imperative that children be vaccinated completely and in a timely way," said Fromson.
As a result, aggressive germs like pneumocccus and Haemophilus influenza B are effectively extinct in the United States and other developed countries. On the reputed link between vaccines and autism, Fromson says highly-publicized misinformation has made a pediatrician's job far more difficult.
"Every study has been refuted or withdrawn. It's over. We know that there's no relationship between these vaccines and consequences such as autism," said Fromson.
All the families he treats immunize their kids on the prescribed schedule. In fact, many traditional medical practices refuse to care for kids who haven't been vaccinated.
Emily is among a growing number of Connecticut parents who are opting not to vaccinate their children. New information from the Department of Public Health reveals the percentage of students who are not fully vaccinated has increased for the sixth consecutive year. The state tracks all kids in Kindergarten and seventh grade who attend both public and private schools.
In Connecticut, families can claim an exemption on either medical or religious grounds. The latter accounts for 80 percent of exemptions during the 2013-14 school year. Other states allow parents to opt out for philosophical reasons. Connecticut does not.
Naturopath Jared Skowron feels it's a matter of semantics.
"Whether it's what I believe philosophically or what I believe religiously, why are we categorizing that?" said Skowron.
"So many people say that people who decide not vaccinate are doing it out of fear, not out of science, but it was out of fear that I continued to vaccinate my first son," she said.
Emily has been outspoken about her son's story, but asked the Troubleshooters to hide her identity because of the growing backlash on social media.
"People have been very very aggressively vocal about their views, saying parents should be put in jail... that we're abusing their children by not vaccinating them," she said.
Skowron believes there needs to be more civil, open dialogue about the issue.
"We are relying on the vaccine because it's what we have now, but we can have better," said the naturopath.
Fromson said that while the vast majority of parents choose to immunize their kids, it's an uphill battle to convince those who don't.
"From a practical standpoint, it's difficult to overcome the idea of belief over fact. How do I change your beliefs?" he said.
Emily said she's not trying to change anyone's mind, she's just doing what she feels is best for her children.
"I know that vaccines save lives, no doubt about it. However, look at the quality of life that it's leaving behind for the people who are not able to handle them," she said.
Emily pulled her now 8-year-old son out of school last year and teaches him at home. She and her husband have a 2-year-old boy as well, who is not being vaccinated.