Today I did something I shouldn’t have to do. I had the first of two MMR shots. For those who do not know or remember, MMR stands for measles, mumps and rubella. It’s a vaccination routinely given to all children after they reach 15 months age, or at least it was until the rise of the anti-vaxxer movement. Now some parents have come to believe vaccinations are dangerous, potentially harmful, cause autism and therefore choose not to vaccinate.
I appreciate these parents position although I believe them misguided and in denial of overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary. But my purpose here is to go beyond this point to tell a bit of a story.
Dolores was a 10-year-old elementary student in early January 1924 when she came home from school sporting sniffles and a bit of a cough. Her parents thought it was no more than a cold and paid no more attention, and her symptoms never became anything more severe.
Coming home from school Dolores joined in play, as she was fond of doing, with Warren, her 3 year-old brother. But this was no ordinary sniffle. Unknown to her or her parents, she was infected with a lethal bacterium known as diphtheria. Soon her brother was infected as was her older sister and the family was quarantined with notices nailed to the front door forbidding anyone from entering or leaving. All her parents could do was treat and comfort their children as best they could, and pray, and hope. The disease progressed rapidly, Warren died and her sister Fern was expected to join him, but at the last minute recovered. Throughout, Dolores never exhibited more than a slight cough and sniffles. She remembers that when Warren died the casket was displayed in the front window so it could be viewed from outside by caring friends and family. That is the way things were done in the early 1920s. Vaccines were few, scarce, and virtually unaffordable for most working families.
These events left a deep scar on Dolores that was torn open in 1938 when she learned her four-year-old son, Jackie, had spinal meningitis. There was little doctors could do for such a dreadful disease in Wabash, Indiana so they rushed him to Lutheran Hospital in Fort Wayne where the prognosis wasn’t much better. Jackie spent the next several weeks in the hospital; his prospects for recovery or even survival were slim. He was paralyzed from the waist down and doctors thought that would be permanent if he survived.
Grim as the news was Dolores believed in miracles. Against all odds Jackie experienced a full recovery with a return of feeling to his extremities and use of his legs. Jackie returned home and the next several months were happy times filled with gratitude, thanks, and relief all had ended well.
But the meningitis left Jackie severely weakened and susceptible. He seemed normal and was enjoying his return to being like any other five-year-old boy when he jumped off a porch while playing and hurt his back. It seemed insignificant until the pain persisted and seemed to intensify. He was taken to the doctor and Dolores and her husband were informed their son had polio. Soon Jackie was again paralyzed from the waist down and back in Lutheran Hospital. This time there was no miracle. He never recovered the use of his legs and over the next several months his health continued to deteriorate until he finally gave up his fight. Dolores again felt the pain of a close personal loss caused by an enemy she couldn’t see or comprehend.
Dolores is my mother.
Years later in 1951 when I was in first grade one of my classmates, Tommy, was diagnosed with polio and missed most of the school year. I remember our class visiting him and how shocked I was to see him caged in an iron lung that literally breathed for him. I remember seeing pictures and on television countless children all in iron lungs, and thinking how dreadful and awful it would be to be trapped in that contraption and lie on your back, seeing the world around you through a small mirror placed above your head.
The anti-vaxxer movement has to be seen in context of the anti-science, anti-intellectual, and generally anti-authority time in which we find ourselves. But I question and doubt whether those opposed to vaccinations have any real idea of what kind of suffering-physically, mentally, or otherwise their actions and behavior imposes on others. They apparently think only of “their” rights without regard to the rights of others, particularly their own children, and fail to understand that “your” rights do not and cannot be allowed to impinge upon my or anyone else’s rights. The interests of the community weigh heavily in such matters.
The anti-vaxxers are devoid of such fears as the memory of polio evoked in Dolores that she inadvertently revealed by cautioning me in my activities at the start and during every summer of my childhood.
There was a great collective sigh of relief when Jonas Salk announced the development of a vaccine for polio. It was on TV, in newspapers, and the top topic of discussion everywhere. Jonas Salk could have made a fortune, but he chose instead to give the vaccine away. I remember receiving the polio shot and then the booster shot FREE when I was in junior high school in 1957. It was a major event. The whole school was immunized at the same time.
The Polio germ cannot exist for long in the environment and must continually be passed from host to host so eradication of the disease, like smallpox, is possible, and nearly reality in 2015.
Earlier this week I asked my 101 year-old mother if I had had the measles. She looked at me for a moment and said, “Your brother had them, but you never did.” So I asked my doctor for advice and today I took time to go get a MMR shot. While that isn’t a big deal in itself, it does represent, in my opinion, frivolous and selfish behavior by a few that have made this necessary for many others. I don’t mind getting the shot, but what I do mind are those on both sides of the political spectrum who by their refusal to have their own children vaccinated have imposed a potential peril on ours. The reasoning of the anti-vaxxer movement, whether generated by fears of autism, alleged religious grounds, or other reasons, doesn’t matter in comparison to the suffering their selfishness places on others.