Immunology and infectious diseases were taught in the fourth quarter of my first year of medial school. Until then, like most people, I had never really given vaccines much thought. I received the smallpox vaccine at birth and bear the scar, as many of us do. I remember getting some kind of vaccine before a trip to England in the early 70s. Not sure what I could have caught in Newcastle that didn’t exist in Winnipeg, but I do remember the shots.
And then came April of 1987.
It wasn’t hearing about how vaccines worked or how many lives they saved that made such a profound impression, but rather the death of one person that has stayed with me since.
We were told at our first lecture that many of our vaccines would be updated. If you could provide immunization records I think it reduced the number you were given. For varicella (chicken pox) we would get our titers checked and those not immune would also be vaccinated. We would also have to get the hepatitis B vaccine. If I remember correctly we all received a dose of the oral polio (live attenuated) vaccine and those with medical records proving immune issues were given the inactivated shot.
What if we didn’t want the vaccines? Well, no vaccinations no ward rotations. No ward rotations, no diploma.
This strict vaccine policy stemmed not from public policy, but from one person’s death. A patient who was severely immunocompromised and in isolation, but expected to eventually recover. He/she was exposed to chicken pox while in hospital and died from the infection. There was an extensive investigation and while I don’t remember if they identified who brought the virus into the isolation ward the message was clear – no one at that hospital should ever be a vector. Not an orderly, a nurse, or a doctor. Up to date vaccines were a condition of employment.
The image of a very ill person, struggling to live but having hope that they would one day be discharged and be able to hug their loved ones skin to skin or smell fresh air now dying from a vaccine preventable illness has stayed with me always. Imagine being close to defeating cancer only to be felled by chicken pox? To endure agonizing chemotherapy and/or radiation and likely multiple hospitalizations, painful procedures and possible surgeries to die at the hands of a vaccine preventable illness?
If I get pertussis I know the chance that I will get seriously ill is very low. However, I have a child with damaged lungs and a compromised heart. He will get sicker than I will. And what if I am in the grocery store and expose a 2 month old? They will also get sicker than I will. I get my pertussis vaccine for them.
I am proud of my smallpox scar. It connects me with millions of people who, like me, helped to eradicate smallpox. Growing up in Winnipeg, Canada the chance I would ever get smallpox was likely nil given international travel was so uncommon in the late 60s and early 70s. Sadly, I think if our task today was eradicating smallpox we’d lose the battle. How many people would agree to a vaccine that left a scar?
When I read about anti-vaccine pseudoscience I get very angry. I understand getting fanatics to see the science is almost an impossible task, but it is the general spread of misinformation that is most dangerous. Many bad articles are shared on Facebook or Twitter or discussed over dinner and with so many people spreading obvious misinformation about vaccines (or worse false balance which makes the arguments against sound almost plausible) it starts to seem more like the truth than what it really is – the exact opposite. If that information comes from a respected newspaper, like the Independent or the Toronto Star or in the curriculum of a major university it gives this bad information even a greater signal boost.
And so every time I read about this misinformation it reminds me of that person I never met. I don’t even know their gender or age or the struggles they endured, but I know they died from chicken pox and they didn’t have to.
The ability to help someone who is less fortunate health wise is a truly a gift. I wish everyone could see that.