Not A Shot In The Dark

I am more than perturbed by the fact that vaccinations–which in my childhood were not only free, but compulsory, and conveniently administered at school–are now something of a political hot potato, particularly for those on the right. Don’t get me wrong. There are liberal enclaves where the vaccination rates are not as high as they should be, although this seems to be due to parental choice rather than political posturing. Senator Rand Paul and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie are the two most recent to weigh in on this debate.

But why is there even a debate? Let’s be clear: Getting one’s children vaccinated is a public health responsibility, much in the same fashion that jury duty is a civic responsibility. In the same way that someone under indictment is owed an impartial jury of his peers (we do, after all, call it due process) those who cannot be vaccinated–infants, those with vaccine allergies and people with suppressed immune systems–are owed the protection of what the medicos call “herd immunity.”

It’s not as though the science is a shot in the dark.

So long ago as a thousand years, the Chinese developed a variolation against smallpox in humans. In using this technique–variolation is a deliberate infection–dried smallpox scabs were blown into the nose of a person who then contracted a mild form of the disease. Upon recovery, the individual was immune. And while between 1 to 2 percent of those variolated, later died as a result, roughly 30% died when they contracted the disease naturally. By 1700, the practice had spread to Africa, India and the Ottoman Empire.

Edward Jenner’s 1796 use of cowpox (vacca, being the Latin for cow, gave us the word “vaccination”) material to create immunity to smallpox, therefore, was not so much a scientific breakthrough as a continuation in a sequence of events that, over the next 200 years, lead to the eradication of the disease.

“You should get your kids vaccinated,” President Obama told Savannah Guthrie during a recent interview broadcast on NBC’s Today show. “It’s good for them.”

The president was specifically referring to the measles outbreak centered in California that has sickened more than 100 people in the United States. Doctors are urging parents not to listen to anti-vaccination activists who have convinced a small number of parents not to inoculate their children by claiming the vaccines can cause autism.

The “link” between vaccinations and autism has long been debunked, although it is still used as a springboard in an ongoing discussion about vaccines in an arc encompassing everything from individual to state rights. Vaccination should be free, compulsory, conveniently administered at school–and paid for by the federal government.

“I understand that there are families that in some cases are concerned about the effect of vaccinations,” the president said. “The science is, you know, pretty indisputable. We’ve looked at this again and again. There is every reason to get vaccinated, but there aren’t reasons to not.”

I took three of the previous four paragraphs, more or less, from online somewhere–and I did so because it was the president speaking, and I think he said it best.

But imagine this: In my parents’ lifetime there was a president of this country who at 39 years of age was stricken by what was then thought of as a childhood disease–polio. Of course I’m referring to Franklin Roosevelt. Could you imagine such a malady affecting a sitting president today? Or that, in this day and age, someone with such a condition would even consider running for that office? Of course not! And not because of the optics of it. Think Dr. Jonas Salk. Or should I have written “thank?”

The man became a national hero and the disease became a thing of the past. I have never known anyone with polio–and I’d be willing to bet big that, on these shores at least, I never will.

That said, another thing I’ll never do is get a flu shot.

I have nothing against flu shots, and I’m not skeptical about their efficaciousness. Even if they provide an effective protection of 25%, still, that’s better than nothing for those who think they need them. And the peace of mind factor is likely to be beneficial in its own right. But I have peace of mind because I haven’t had the flu in 40 years. Flu season comes and goes and I simply do not contract the virus.

Not any more, I mean. Not since the mid 1970s, when–twice–I suffered with what I suspect were two different strains of influenza. Each time I was properly sick for 10 days to two weeks and, as I’ve previously said about passing a kidney stone, death seemed like an attractive option. I don’t mean the kind of flu that I’ve heard described as akin to a truly ferocious cold–those were the kinder, gentler symptoms that only appeared toward the end of each bout. I’m talking about the kind of sick where you can’t keep anything down, including water, and you have to gingerly suck on a wrung-out towel so you don’t die of dehydration.

But all that was 40 years ago. Apart from scaring my parents half to death, the result, practically speaking, is that I’ve never really been sick since then–certainly not with the flu. And I consider it to have been well worth the bother for what has thus far proved to be an immunity.

I don’t remember there having been anything like a flu shot in those days. If there had been, you can bet I would have taken it.

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