The Natural Consequences of Unvaccinated Children
I was seven years old, walking home from school for the second time that day. School was literally across the street, and Sister Marie sent me home to change my pants again. I had been sitting in my chair practicing my handwriting when the girl behind me screeched because of the urine that was dripping off of my chair and splashing onto her shoes. Unlike the first time, I wasn’t embarrassed. I didn’t notice and I didn’t really care because I was too sick. The walk home seemed infinite, and I had to stop every few feet to gather my strength. My head pounded. When I finally got to the staircase that led to our upstairs apartment, I had to crawl up the dark stained wooden steps doggie style.
My mother rushed into action. Her only baby was sick. Not an unusual occurrence. Without penicillin and modern medicine, I wouldn’t have survived my first month let alone seven years. She cleaned me up, took my temperature, and put me in bed. My fever was 99, so she gave me orange-flavored chewable aspirin. Two hours later, my temp was 104. I was put into a tub full of cold water and ice. The pain, both from the illness and from the ice bath, was indescribable. Fever down to 100, I was rushed to the hospital. There, IVs and ice bags compounded my misery. I could see fear in my parents’ eyes. Even my father was worried.
The next day was better. Everything still hurt, but I was hydrated and my head didn’t feel like it was going to explode. The initial diagnosis was Mono. Kissing disease, it was called, and the nurses and my mom tried to tease me over the name. I still felt too awful to respond. The next day I broke out in a rash. It was measles, and I had exposed the whole school and hospital. I was patient zero in the 1957 measles outbreak in Willmar, Minnesota. I do not know how many people got sick or even died because of me. I got my infection from a cousin in Ohio whom I had visited prior to school starting. I don’t know how many children were born with birth defects because of me. I feel the guilt many years later, even though I did nothing wrong. I was up to date on all my vaccinations. But a measles vaccine wasn’t available in 1957.
I grew up with iron lungs, children dying from pertussis, and chicken pox parties. Unvaccinated children suffered horribly. They still do in countries where vaccines are limited. Fortunately, in the U.S. most children are vaccinated. They are relatively safe. Unfortunately, there are parents who think they are smarter and better informed than people who fight diseases for a living, and the children of these parents are at risk. The fact that these unvaccinated children also put the community, especially the unborn and infants, at risk aren’t important to these parents. In a democracy, they have the right to choose. But with choice comes consequences.
The arguments against vaccines are specious at best and outright lies at worst. Vaccines have been saving lives for centuries. Exhibit A is that George Washington saved his army at Valley Forge by having his surgeons vaccinate the entire army against smallpox. It was a crude affair, smallpox scabs poked into the arm with a heated knife. But it worked. The surrounding community was devastated by the disease, but the Continental Army survived. Measles and smallpox killed over half of the Native Americans who were exposed to them. It was the biggest factor in the Europeans’ ability to colonize the New World.
Most people do not understand how vaccines work, and ignorance breeds fear. It’s simple, really. A vaccine is like a wanted poster. It tells the body, “Here’s what the bad guy looks like. When you see him, kill him.” The details of how it works are easy to explain in terms of the metaphor of keys and locks. Viruses attach themselves to the protein coat of a cell. They enter the cell through the use of a chemical key that lets them enter and then reprogram it to produce copies of the virus. It’s like drug dealers taking over a candy factory and using it to manufacture meth.
Vaccines are dead copies of the virus, complete with the key it uses to open up the cell. Stimulated by the presence of the dead virus, the body uses T-cells to manufacture antibodies. These are like little locks that latch onto the key part of the virus. They fit onto that particular virus and only that virus. The antibody then sends a signal to the white blood cells that act like garbage trucks that clean up the immobilized enemy. The dead viruses do not last long in the body. They are removed quickly, but the T-cells keep making antibodies that will attach themselves to live viruses that enter the body.
One argument against vaccines is the question of their safety. Obviously, dead viruses are safe. It’s the live ones that are not. And as for the preservatives (called toxins by the antivaxxers), those have been extensively tested. Mercury, in the form of thimerosal, has been removed in spite of the lack of any evidence that it posed a danger. Kids get more toxins in the air they breathe and the water they drink (especially bottled water) than they do from a vaccine. Massive use of plastics has created huge environmental problems that dwarf anything medicine has created. Every week, there’s a new story about the health problems caused by PCBs, BPAs, PBDEs, PDAs, ABCs and God knows what else. And anyone who brings up the autism argument isn’t paying attention to the research. There’s better evidence that circumcision causes autism than immunization. And that evidence is laughable.
The point is that those who are willing to ignore the evidence about the safety and efficacy of vaccines are free to do so. But society, in the form of the government, must then take steps to protect the rest of us from the consequences of those decisions. The Amish choose to not live like the majority of people in the U.S. That’s fine; it’s their right as citizens. But they do not get to drive their horses and buggies on the public freeway with the rest of us. It’s a safety issue. Vehicles traveling sixty five miles an hour cannot safely coexist with 19th century technology. And when they do use public roads that they are allowed on, they have to have large safety triangles so cars don’t run into them.
I am not suggesting that people who aren’t vaccinated have to wear some kind of identification. That would be ridiculous. But they shouldn’t have the same access to all public places as people who are vaccinated. If you refuse to abide by public health standards, you are not allowed to run a restaurant. If you refuse to meet vaccination standards, you also shouldn’t be allowed to be enrolled in public schools and universities. Doctors and hospitals who have unvaccinated patients should be required to advertise that fact. Those who won’t listen to common sense shouldn’t be given carte blanche to endanger the rest of us. The natural consequence of not helping protect the herd is that you don’t get to be part of the herd.
Some of those parents who refuse to vaccinate say they are listening to their gut. Better they should listen to the children. Don’t say measles isn’t a scary disease until you have stayed up with a child who has it. Listen to children’s book author Roald Dahl write about the death of his daughter from measles. Listen to that little boy for whom a simple set of stairs became a mountain so many years ago. Vaccinate. Your. Child. Or go live by yourself.