When I was growing up, kids got what were known as “childhood diseases.”
So I got measles. And German measles. And chicken pox.
What I remember about measles was staying in bed, side by side with my sister Kathleen, with the blinds pulled down. Something about measles affecting your eye sight. (Apparently an old wives tale.) We were still living in a flat in my grandmother’s three-family. When we moved to our own house, Kath and I got a smaller bedroom, but we graduated to twin beds.
I don’t remember all that much about the German measles – other than I had it. And that I wasn’t especially sick. On the last day before I went back to school, I got to go outside and ride my bike. It was a nice spring day, and there was someone going door to door distributing samples of Jif peanut butter. (Just wikipedia’d it: Jif was introduced in 1958, so this would have been when I was in third grade.) My mother was apparently not a choosy mother. I’m sure we used up the Jif sample, but we remained a Peter Pan house.
Chicken pox was bad. My family was semi-quarantined. My father could go to work, but the rest of us were stuck in. The pediatrician made a house call to lift the quarantine. My sister Kath had an especially tough bout with chicken pox – pox inside her mouth. (I was just talking about this with my cousin MB, and she said that her brother also had a bad case of chicken pox. Kath and Joe were grammar school classmates. Wonder about the rest of the kids in that class made out?)
Illnesses, as those of us who grew up when kids got ill, could just stampede through a classroom.
When I was in second grade, there was a tonsillitis epidemic that manifest itself just before our first communion.
I remember one day when there were only five or six kids – out of nearly 50 – in class.
I recovered by holy communion day, but I did miss out on my grandmother’s 75th birthday party. I was stuck in bed, but because our house was small and my bedroom was opposite the bathroom, I got to see most of the family members coming and going. (I remember my father’s cousin Matt sticking his head in the door to chat with me.) Someone brought me a piece of the birthday cake, which was a thrill because it was “store bought.” It was something called a “whipped cream cake”, and I didn’t really like it: no chocolate.
I also had scarlet fever – which was pretty rare. And I was the only one in our family to come down with it.
Before I could go back to school, I had to be okayed by a public health nurse. She showed up mid-morning, at which point my mother kicked me out of the house. I remember how weird it seemed walking to school “off-hours”. Make that running. I was so concerned about being late that I ran all the way.
I never had mumps, although had swollen glands on a few occasions, one of which may have been a mild case of mumps.
Childhood diseases were considered more of a nuisance than anything else. That’s because most kids didn’t suffer any really terrible side-effects from them. They didn’t go blind. They didn’t go deaf. They didn’t die. But some kids did suffer. And some kids did die.
Polio was, of course, the biggie.
Although iron lungs seemed kind of 1930’s and 1940’s, it wasn’t uncommon to see kids wearing leg braces, or even in wheelchairs. One girl in my class – Patty G – was a polio victim, and she wore her leg brace up until junior high. (We weren’t especially friendly. She was on the fringe of the sexpot-before-their-time clique. Needless to say, not my crowd. I do remember, in eighth grade, during recess, Patty gesturing a bunch of us over so that she could tell a joke that “was not for mixed company.” While I do, in fact, remember the entire joke, it is not worth repeating a story that has to do with fending off a boy who was pressuring you into sex by proving to him that you were having your period. The punch line entails not being able to find red paint and resorting to painting your sanitary napkin with green, and telling your beau that the period wasn’t “ripe.” This would have been 1963. Clearly, none of my childhood diseases impacted my memory…)
Somewhere along the line, there were – blessedly – vaccinations that could take care of most/all childhood diseases.
The only one I got was for polio. That was in 1955, when school children across the country were inoculated with Salk vaccine. Later rounds were oral, but that original dose was a shot.
And guess what?
In five years, polio was pretty nearly wiped out.
Over the years, the routine, not-as-bad-as-polio diseases were similarly done away with.
And then we got the generation of parents who didn’t catch measles or chicken pox. And didn’t know anyone who had.
They were never quarantined. They never saw a kid with polio hobbling along with a leg brace. And they never fed their kids Jif or Peter Pan. So their kids were healthier. Had “natural” immunity. And these “we know what’s best” parents weren’t going to introduce any foreign substances into their kids’ systems. Plus there were the horror stories – unproven or disproven – about the consequences of getting vaccinated.
So a growing number of folks decided to forego vaccinating their children.
For a while, they were okay, benefiting from “herd immunity,” which occurs when 90% of a population is vaccinated, which means there’s minimal likelihood that anyone who’s not vaccinated will get “it”. Which is a good thing if you have a child who suffers from something like cystic fibrosis, and can’t get vaccinated. Or a baby who’s too young. And it also lets the born-free free-riders ride free.
And then, the 21st century’s Typhoid Mary shows up at Disneyland and infects a lot of other folks with measles. Today we are Disneyland, tomorrow the world… Measles is now spreading throughout the country.
And plenty of those contracting measles are babies, too young to get vaccinated against it.
Meanwhile, the anti-vaccinators are complaining that their kids are being shunned, and that people are saying mean things to them.
Me, I think that school systems should start requiring proof of inoculation.
If you choose not to inoculate your child for any reason other than your child’s not being able to get it because of health reasons, you can’t attend school. Your choice. (My dictate would cover the bad ones, like measles. I don’t know whether chicken pox or whooping cough – another disease that I would have thought was Little House era, but which is on the rebound – are all that awful. I’ll leave that to the pros.)
One of the news stories I heard about this mentioned a survey of high tech companies out in Silicon Valley, and, in almost all of them, the proportion of parents choosing to inoculate was below the 90% herd immunity threshold. And these are the best and brightest.
If I had a baby, or a kid with CF, and they caught measles, and got really, really sick, I’d be livid. And polio? I’d be beyond livid on that one.
These diseases have been pretty much eradicated, at least in the developed world.
Let’s keep it that way.
The me, me, me, me, me approach doesn’t work.
Time to roll up those sleeves and get the shots that have wiped all these dreadful diseases out.