2014-03-23 – I remember a time before many of the vaccines we rely on today were available. Now, I was a little boy, so I don’t remember any scientific details. What I do remember is the fear.
I remember my parents fear one summer when I was maybe five or six when I came out of the swimming pool complaining of a stiff neck. They wrapped me up right away and took me home and to the doctor. Could it be polio? It wasn’t. It was just nervous parents. But they grew up at a time when kids got polio. They grew up at a time when the President of the United States had polio. People were on the lookout for symptoms. It was bad.
The first Salk vaccine was just coming out around that time. I had the shots. And, yes, I cried. A few years later the Sabin oral vaccine came out. People stood in lines to get that one, like they were waiting to buy tickets to an Elvis concert. I got mine at my grade school, where hundreds of people came, the fear was so great.
When I was maybe in second grade I had the measles. No, I didn’t have the measles shot. It didn’t exist yet. I was laid up pretty good—for a couple of weeks. They kept me in a darkened room because light hurt my eyes. I was lucky. I had no lasting effects—except for my vision. They said that my nearsightedness probably came from the measles. I didn’t know anyone, but other kids died from it.
When my younger brother got the mumps, people wanted to bring their kids to visit him. Why? Mumps was generally an easy disease if you caught it young. If you got it at an older age, you could die or become sterile if you were a man. That’s what they said. So parents would try to get their kids exposed early to get it out of the way. It was a kind of folk-vaccination. I was exposed, of course, but never got it. I later had the vaccine when it came out.
My worst experience was with chicken pox. Like mumps, chicken pox struck older kids with more force than younger ones. I was in eighth grade, a borderline age. It was three weeks. I had scabs all over my body. And when I say all over, I mean my face, my scalp, my chest and stomach and back, my arms, my crotch, my legs, and even my throat. They itched like hell, except when they hurt. And they told me that if I scratched the scabs off, they would leave pockmarks. But there were so many of them and they fell off in my bed just from tossing and turning in the night. And yes, there are scars. I felt so awful that this pubescent boy allowed his mother to see him naked in the bathroom while he sat in colloidal oatmeal baths to relieve the itch.
We’ve forgotten all that. My boys’ friends never had any of these illnesses. Today, schools worry about strep, but not like in the old days when strep could lead to rheumatic fever. I’ve told you my story from a kid’s perspective. I can barely imagine what it was like for parents in those days trying to protect your kids.
Today we can protect our kids and most of us do. But we take it on faith. The illnesses themselves are no longer visible. So stories of vaccine side effects start gaining importance. A person who has never seen polio or diphtheria or whooping cough or measles or mumps or chicken pox doesn’t know the pain and the risk.
But let me tell you this. The reason you don’t know about these diseases is that the vaccines work. They have prevented it all. I grew up before they were available and I had two pretty miserable bouts. These were not rare occurrences. My life experience was the normal thing. Most kids had at least a couple! And some of the kids who had those diseases died. As children. Or were crippled. It wasn’t one out of million in those days. People feared these diseases because they saw them.
One of my favorite cereals when I was a kid was Cocoa Puffs. They advertised it as part of a healthy breakfast (that is, if the other stuff you had for breakfast was healthy, because the Cocoa Puffs weren’t). There was a commercial in which a cuckoo bird would have people restrain him in the presence of his favorite cereal because he was “cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs.” Here is a YouTube video of one such commercial (sorry it’s from 1974, I couldn’t find an earlier one).
When I think about so-called “truther” parents rejecting vaccines for their children because of some very remote or even fictitious risk and putting their friends and neighbors at risk of contagion as well, I just think they are—
Cuckoo for chicken pox.
great article Steve. Yes I remember the fear of the braces some kids had to wear. I think you are right, We should all be grateful for the vaccines that prevent these diseases.
Terry– I forgot about the braces. Those kids were a bit older than me. The kids my age got the polio shots and later the oral vaccine, so we were a transition group. Most of us escaped it.
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