In the not-too-distant past, the term “childhood diseases” was far more menacing then it is in 2019, or at least it should be.
There was an expectation that children would likely develop measles, and they came in two varieties: German and “red.”
Typically, kids with measles developed a fever, their eyes became light sensitive for a while (in the case of red measles), they developed a red rash and, of course, had to remain home from school as this was a communicable disease.
Whooping cough, another childhood illness, is readily defined by the unforgettable animal-like cough that accompanies the condition. To hear an infant stricken with this gut-wrenching sound is to wonder how a small body could possibly generate, much less tolerate, such a primal noise.
Mumps was less common and a child (or an adult) with the disease presents with swollen glands in the neck and the accompanying pain.
Diphtheria is a disease that is so unheard of these days that most people have forgotten how to correctly spell it but defence against it remains one of the vital “quad” of vaccines along with measles, mumps and whooping cough.
These are all diseases against which most thinking parents willingly move as soon as possible in order to immunize their children because, in some cases, the high fevers associated with measles can lead to brain damage, permanent vision impairment and even death.
Infection from mumps can lead, in males, to sterility and whooping cough in very young infants can lead to death as it often does in less developed countries without universal immunization protocols. For older adults who contract whooping cough, this can also be a significant and permanently damaging health risk and this is not an unknown experience on Manitoulin Island.
Diphtheria is a particularly nasty infection against which infants are normally vaccinated.
This disease, in extreme cases, causes people to strangle to death as their throats become covered with a “pseudo membrane” that blocks their airway.
As a fairly recent observation, about 35 years ago there was a perceived diphtheria diagnosis of an individual on or near Manitoulin and the Sudbury and District Health Unit immediately swung into the highest of gears, re-immunizing/boostering an enormous part of Manitoulin’s population as individuals stood in long queues for long periods to get their shot at the emergency clinics that were quickly and efficiently established all around the Island and beyond: people took this threat of a possible single infection extremely seriously, as they should have, and they still should in a similar circumstance.
Why would we not take the steps encouraged by every public health agency in the developed world and ensure our children against not just these infections but the lifetime of suffering, even death, that is sometimes associated with these conditions?
Why not indeed?
Virtually everyone of a certain age has a little puckered scar high up on the outside of their left arms. That is where they received their smallpox vaccination (unless it was delivered at a less public spot on their lower quarters).
Prior to immunization becoming available and widespread, smallpox infections led routinely to death and still do in some parts of the world.
Another example: people of a certain age grew up with the possibility of becoming infected with a poliomyelitis virus infection. That was normally shortened to simply polio and, when a youngster was infected and central nerve damage was the result, that child was said to have “infantile paralysis.”
If that sounds ominous, it was, and every year, when polio season rolled around (those hot August days when youngsters were often infected and diagnosed because of the extremely high and damaging fever that is associated with the condition) parents were very cautious about where their children played, and with whom, especially if there were rumours of diagnoses of polio, a very contagious disease, nearby.
Do we want to consider not vaccinating our children against very serious infections? Could we even contemplate turning back the clock on Dr. Jonas Salk’s mid-1950s revolutionary anti-polio vaccine?
Why, then, would we not consider immunizing our children against measles, mumps, diphtheria and whooping cough?
Someone began the baseless rumour fairly recently that these vaccines can cause a child to develop autism and that rumour has become gospel in the minds of enough parents who have chosen to withhold their children from the vaccination process.
The MMPD has managed to assume a particular negative association in the minds of enough parents and caregivers that in allowing the possibility of these diseases spreading among unvaccinated children they are, in fact, encouraging the spread of the diseases in the wider population.
Right now, we are learning of the outbreak of measles in British Columbia among unvaccinated children. Public health officials aren’t calling it an epidemic but it is troubling because there is the real possibility that some of these kids and their families may have their lives altered permanently as a result of the infection.
Vaccines have been with us for long enough that, was there a remote possibility that their administration could lead to some other chronic condition, like autism, they would have long ago been discontinued.
Do we think that measles, mumps, whooping cough and diphtheria are less serious, even less pernicious, than smallpox, which was eradicated over 40 years ago, or polio?
With the exception of diphtheria they generally are somewhat less serious, but not completely, and if we want to protect children and in the process eradicate these potentially lethal diseases because there is nowhere for them to spread, then we must immunize on a nearly universal basis.
To do otherwise, in light of the scientific evidence, is at the very least an anti-social decision.