The national debate over the safety of immunizations is an academic matter for some people. For me, it’s personal.
I was an only child until age 10, so my cousins were infrequent substitutes for siblings. Unfortunately, we all lived in distant cities, and our visits were limited to vacations and holidays.
Two cousins spent several months visiting in our home. One, who was significantly older, spent a semester with us while attending a class in college. Another cousin, five months older than I, stayed much of one summer. I don’t recall how or why that came about, but I do remember thinking, “This is what having a sister is like.”
Then, when my parents told me I was going to be a brother, I was thrilled. I didn’t understand that having a sibling who’s a decade younger than you is different than having one who’s your same age.
My sister was born in January 1961. I was still adjusting to my role as a big brother when a phone call during dinner on March 27 brought us the sad news. The 11-year-old cousin with whom I had shared so much fun over the past summer had died.
She seemed to be recovering from a bout of measles when she took a turn for the worse. This was two years before the first measles vaccine was approved in the United States.
My own case of measles had been difficult. I had hallucinations from high fever, but I got well. You better believe my parents had my sister in line for the vaccine as soon as it became available.
In the decade before 1963 when a vaccine became available, nearly all children got measles by the time they were 15 years old. It was estimated 3 to 4 million people in the United States were infected annually. Also each year, among reported cases, an estimated 400 to 500 people died, 48,000 were hospitalized, and 1,000 suffered encephalitis (swelling of the brain) from measles.
An improved vaccine was distributed beginning in 1968, and this strain — often combined with protection against mumps and rubella — has been in use since.
In 2000, measles in the United States was declared eliminated — the absence of continuous disease transmission for greater than 12 months. More recently, however, we’ve lost ground. Epidemics of measles in particular have forced school districts to cancel numerous classes. Some states are reevaluating laws that allow parents to exempt their children from vaccinations, but not without controversy.
A national anti-vaccine movement, aided by social media, has frightened enough families into believing that the risk of having a life-changing reaction from vaccinations is greater than the risk of allowing their children to remain unprotected against totally preventable diseases. Most seem well-intentioned, choosing to believe decades-old reports that have since been retracted or disproven. Some cite sincerely-held religious reasons.
Sadly, a few in the resistance have become aggressive, confronting medical authorities and grieving parents with misinformation. The World Health Organization lists vaccine hesitancy among its top 10 threats to world health.
Vaccines can have side-effects, but studies overwhelmingly show they are seldom severe and reactions are short-term. Meanwhile, epidemics represent a significant health threat to infants too young to vaccinate and others with compromised immune systems.
I feel blessed to live at a time when medical advances can prevent so much suffering. If only a vaccine had been available for my young cousin.
Gene Deason is editor emeritus of the Brownwood Bulletin. His column appears on Fridays. He may be contacted at email@example.com.