photo by Flickr user frankieleon
Like many people my age, I had the measles when I was a child. I should have been among the last people in this country to catch it.
I was around 5 years old when I got sick. That was the year I entered kindergarten. Since we did not have public preschool, it was the first time most of us in Mrs. Temple’s class at P.S. 26 in the Bronx were exposed to a lot of other children. If one of us got the measles, most of us were likely to get it, and we did.
This would have been sometime between the fall of 1962 and the spring of 1963. The first measles vaccine was released in the United States in ’63, but it was too late for me. I don’t remember much about my illness, which means I was in the fortunate majority for whom measles was an uncomplicated hallmark of childhood. My parents recognized it as soon as the rash came out. They kept me in a darkened room to protect my eyes, did what they could to ease my discomfort from the itchy rash, and let me wait it out.
Once you have had measles, you are immune to the disease for life, so I never gave it much thought after that. I caught most of the other typical childhood diseases of the 1960s: Rubella (aka German measles), chicken pox and innumerable unexplained transient fevers that usually meant a couple of days off from school. The scary disease that I never seemed to acquire was mumps. My parents dreaded it because, in some rare cases, it could leave men sterile. I crossed paths with numerous people who came down with mumps shortly thereafter, but I never seemed to get it. By the time I was a teenager, my parents and I concluded that I had probably contracted a case that was so mild that it passed as one of those nameless fevers, and therefore rendered myself immune. I don’t really know. I did go on to have children, and at this point in my life, I consider it a moot point.
If you grew up in the 1960s, some products of modern life were purely and simply good. There was no debate over the merits of space travel, color television or vaccines. These were marvels that promised to make life better for everyone. Vaccines delivered far more of that promise than the others.
All of us in Mrs. Temple’s class were born in 1957, the year the first polio vaccine was introduced. The Board of Education took no chances with us. To go to school, you had to have been vaccinated - period. One day, when I was in either kindergarten or first grade, they lined us up and had the school nurse hand out sugar cubes with, as I recall, a pink or purple dot in the middle - the booster vaccine that would further protect us from a disease that had ravaged the generations of New York school kids before us, and which had crippled a future president in the prime of his life.
We kids were delighted. Not about the protection; about the sugar. But I often heard my parents and grandparents thank God and modern medicine that they did not have to worry about polio for me and my little brother.
In the spring of 1995, a little girl who lived down the hall from my family came down with chicken pox. My older daughter had already had the illness, but my younger one - then about 4 1/2 - had not. We were planning a trip to Hungary with my in-laws that summer, and my wife worried that Ali would get sick when we were supposed to travel. So she sent Ali down the hall to play with our neighbor’s ill child, and sure enough, Ali caught her chicken pox at a time that was convenient for us to deal with it. Later in ’95, a new vaccine arrived for chicken pox. Today’s parents do not have to take the drastic step of exposing their healthy child to a disease as a travel prophylactic.
Yet, incredibly, some modern parents do choose to expose their children to disease. There have been, at this writing, at least 121 cases of measles reported in the United States from the outbreak that began at Disneyland in California, and the total is sure to go higher. A monumental effort is underway to track and isolate the contacts of those who were infected - an effort that would not be necessary if enough of the public was either vaccinated, like my children, or previously exposed, like me.
There is a kind of craziness abroad in the land in which conjecture is conflated with science, innuendo and speculation with fact, and objective attempts to calculate risks and benefits are downplayed against the idea that everyone is entitled to his or her own beliefs, and that if enough people believe something, then it must be true. The last point is pretty much what organized religion tries to teach. Science is no longer seen as a contradiction to religious faith; it is used as an adjunct, and religion is whatever we choose to believe about anything.
Thus we get politicians who question evolution, or who lack the gumption to say out loud that evolution belongs in biology classes while “intelligent design” should be taught as theology. We get legislation to label foods containing GMOs as though they were dangerous household chemicals. We measure trends in temperature, polar ice and other climate markers, which are proven facts, and conjure predictions that the world will either drown or boil in a cauldron of rising seas, which are not. And we get parents, otherwise responsible, deciding that it is sound child care to leave their progeny exposed to avoidable diseases.
Note to such parents: When your unvaccinated daughter grows up and becomes pregnant, and her unvaccinated child comes down with rubella during the first trimester of that pregnancy, you will be terrified. Trust someone who is old enough to remember.
Vaccines are not an unadulterated good, because there is no such thing. Everything, including space travel and color television, comes with trade-offs. But the trade-offs of modern vaccination are well worth it, and the costs of not vaccinating are only beginning to be felt by people who are not old enough to have been in Mrs. Temple’s class of 1962-63.