When it comes to staying healthy and protecting children, grandmothers have a special kind of wisdom because they are living history books.
One topic that your grandmother can shed light on is the importance of vaccines. When she was a child, there weren’t many diseases that could be prevented with vaccines. Smallpox was one of the first diseases for which vaccines were developed, followed by polio. Your grandmother probably knew people who contracted polio, some of whom died and others who permanently lived in an iron lung.
Barbara Chew grew up during the Great Depression and can’t understand why parents would not want to vaccinate their children.
“I struggle to keep from feeling totally judgmental when I hear about parents who refuse to protect their children,” said Barbara. “I simply can’t understand it.”
Like Barbara, your grandmother remembers what it was like when people were afraid to go swimming because it was feared that polio was spread in the pool. She could tell you stories about waiting in line with her classmates to receive a sugar cube that contained the polio vaccine.
Unfortunately, we have not learned the lessons of our grandmother’s generation. Polio, measles, mumps and rubella were just a cold, hard fact of life, as were all the permanent disabilities and deaths that they left in their wake. As soon as a new vaccine was developed, parents rushed to protect their children from these dreaded childhood diseases. And the vaccines worked. Most of the diseases of your grandmother’s generation have been nearly eradicated.
Barbara lived in a time when vaccine-preventable diseases wreaked devastating havoc on children and their families.
“Polio panic was a recurrent theme of my childhood,” said Barbara. “Not only was my President a polio victim, but two friends died, two more wore leg braces for the rest of their lives.”
Even if a polio victim overcame the disease they still had to deal with the lasting physical effects.
“Another of my friends, Connie, was severely affected many years after her initial illness, when she was a grandmother herself,” said Barbara. “The disease can begin producing symptoms in later life. Polio wasn’t listed as the cause of death when Connie died, but it sure made her last years pretty miserable.”
Today, vaccines have been a victim of their own success. We don’t see many vaccine-preventable diseases anymore and therefore, we have forgotten how devastating they are when they strike. Despite overwhelming evidence that vaccines are safe, many believe that the risks outweigh the benefits. Presumably, this is because we no longer live with the daily fear of contracting one of these devastating diseases. We no longer live face to face with vaccine-preventable diseases on a daily basis…or do we?
In the last two years there have been nearly 6,000 cases of Pertussis in Texas (better known by its more common name “Whooping Cough” because of the whooping sound a baby makes when gasping for breath) and just recently, there was a case of measles in Houston. A Texas A&M student even lost his life to a vaccine-preventable form of meningitis. There have been outbreaks of mumps all over the US in recent years and several babies have died from an infantile form of meningitis.
Vaccines can prevent these diseases, but only if the majority of a community is immunized. If fewer and fewer people get immunized, we all lose ‘community immunity’ because diseases can spread quickly, with devastating effects, in a population with low immunization rates. Individuals who cannot be immunized (due to allergies or pre-existing medical conditions) are especially at risk in a community with low vaccination rates because they depend on us to protect them.
Ask your grandmother about the diseases that are now preventable with vaccines. She will tell you that vaccines are nothing short of a miracle.
“I remember how thrilling it was to read the huge headline in the Times Herald when the “Salk” vaccine became available,” said Barbara. “My mother made sure my sister and I were standing in line when the vaccine first became available; the line stretched around the block. Receiving the polio vaccine felt like a reprieve.”
Barbara considers immunizations something that everyone must do not only for themselves but for the good of the entire community.
After her granddaughter Anna had her first child, she made sure to keep her grandmother informed about the new baby. When Barbara learned that her great-grandson had received his first round of immunizations, she was ecstatic.
That’s because Barbara knew that by getting immunized and by protecting not only himself, but everyone around him against vaccine-preventable diseases that the newborn in the first month of his life had just performed his very first act of public service.
Immunize. Prevent what’s preventable.