There is a picture in my family album of my father holding me as an infant. It was taken in our home, in our living room. The picture is not so different from any other photo of a proud father holding his newborn. Fashions have changed; black and white film has been replaced by digital technology. What separates this photo from a contemporary image is that my father is wearing a surgical mask.
In 1959, a child was vaccinated for DPT, polio, and smallpox. During the ’50s, an estimated 3-4 million people were infected with measles each year, resulting in an annual mortality of 400-500 people. Nearly all children were infected with the virus by the time they were 15. On average, 48,000 people were hospitalized annually, and in any given year 4,000 people developed encephalitis, a debilitating and often forgotten consequence of the disease. Not until 1963 did John Enders and his colleagues develop the first strain of measles vaccine and license it.
Before vaccines controlled the spread of epidemics, our parents and grandparents relied on isolation and avoidance as a means to prevent disease. This method has historical roots reaching back to the Middle Ages and even before.
Quarantine, or the separation of infected individuals, was recorded in the Old Testament, but the first organized effort came in response to the Black Death in 1348. Venice was the first municipality to implement a policy of forbidding ships to dock if the ships were suspected of harboring plague. Forty days, or quarantine, is an arbitrary number attributed to the fasting season of Lent. It was believed the plague would take 40 days to incubate and show its effects. The logic of the practice was plainly persuasive, because it wasn’t long before the policy was adopted by other European countries.
In England, not only were ships contained, but if people became infected with the plague, their houses were sealed—and their families sealed inside—until 40 days after the victims recovered or died. Other methods steeped in superstition and rumor were also employed to contain epidemics, but quarantine proved the most viable option.
What was common to both the Middle Ages and a U.S. family in the ’50s was a fear of contagious disease. Both saw the devastating effects of epidemics and illness. Both considered how to lessen their exposure to disease. They did not rely on medicine to cure these infections.
Lately, Americans suffer from a disturbing disconnect that could cause the very epidemic they should fear. As a society, our collective memory of the destructive effects of polio, measles, and other diseases is fading. We no longer dread these diseases as our parents and grandparents did. With each successive generation, those memories, those stories—the tangible evidence of disease and death—is disappearing. Instead we complacently believe medicine can cure these illnesses should we or our loved ones fall ill.
As anti-vaxxers resist the rising voice of vaccination proponents, the result of their defiance actually results in perpetuating what was once considered an eliminated threat. Ignoring basic biology and disease etiology in the name of freedom not only harms their own children but hinders the freedom of others to live without fear.
Yet anti-vaxxers persist in voicing a litany of objections against a simple prevention. When a single dose costs less than a dollar, is it really a conspiracy perpetrated by the government and big pharma to make money? Or for once, could we agree that perhaps the CDC and government might have the health of its citizens in mind? Besides, who would benefit from an epidemic?
They claim a 3 percent failure rate as proof of the vaccine’s ineffectiveness, but they forget that our country is not isolated. We do not quarantine our population from foreign travelers who may come from countries where measles outbreaks and unvaccinated citizens are more common.
Preservatives and additives, particularly thimerosal, have been studied and continue to be studied by the FDA, CDC, NIH, and three independent organizations—the National Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Medicine, the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, and the American Academy of Pediatrics. No thimerosal is present in vaccines for children under the age of 6, except trace amounts in some flu vaccines. Trace amounts of these ingredients prevent contamination of a multi-dose vial by repeated puncture. And realistically, we already ingest many of these ingredients in our food and water supply.
Past generations sought to avoid their exposure to disease by whatever means they had available to them. These days, science has given us the means to avoid rampant infection. Instead of fearing the disease, anti-vaxxers naively fear the simple solution to avoiding it.
Mary Lawrence is the author of the Bianca Goddard Mysteries, a new series set in Tudor London. The series launches with The Alchemist’s Daughter, which Kensington will publish in April 2015. Follow her on Twitter @mel59lawrence.