Recently I saw a car with large professional lettering on the back that said, "The biggest lie is that vaccinations are safe and effective." My initial though was that if this person had their way tens of millions of people, particularly children, would die needlessly. Later it got me to thinking about my most memorable vaccination.
With the post World War II baby boomer generation everything changed. I know, every generation thinks that, but the baby boom coincided with science that fundamentally altered human expectations.
Our first thought might be of nuclear power: the bomb, the cold war, electricity too cheap to meter. I remember some of that, including mutual assured destruction, duck and cover drills, rampant paranoia. But it never seemed real. It was too abstract, too removed from anything in my day-to-day life. It wasn't scary in part because it had no connection to anyone or anything I knew.
Now polio, that was scary and real. I don't remember adults talking about nuclear war or the Soviet Union and certainly we kids did not. But adults talked about polio in grave voices with worried faces. The kids talked about it too, especially after a kid in our area contracted it and was confined to an iron lung. That sounded like the most terrifying thing we could imagine. So, we wondered, how might we catch polio, how could we avoid it? Stay away from sick people, don't touch anything, be extra good, pray. Were Catholics protected? Lutherans, Methodists, maybe Jews?
We in our childish way were doing what humans had done for their entire existence. When something is inexplicable you attribute it to the gods or luck or some superstition. So we washed our hands like we never had before. We worried about every cough, whether ours or anyone else's. If anyone acted "funny," whatever that was, we avoided them. We wondered if it was safer inside or outdoors. We made up causes and hoped for cures. Everyone thought about it but seldom talked about it.
While humans, for good or ill, had control over nuclear weapons, doctors, scientists and politicians could do nothing to stop the spread of polio. And polio was just one disease. During the first half of the twentieth century tuberculosis, smallpox, malaria, measles, mumps, scarlet fever and a host of other diseases mostly defied real medical treatment. While public health measures for improved sanitation and clean drinking water significantly reduced the incidence of a variety of diseases, infections in this pre-antibiotic era continued to be a problem. Remember that antibiotics only became widely available after WWII.
So we lived with this dark shadow. Then one day a miracle occurred. At school each class in turn was marched out of their classroom through the hallways and into the door at the end of the gymnasium. We lined up single file along the back wall in alphabetical order. The line went down the length of the gym, made a left turn along the far wall and then went through the door at the far end. This was a clever design because we could not see what was happening until we took our turn and stepped through that doorway.
By that time you just had a couple of kids ahead of you and only had a few seconds to take in the scene - a long table, a doctor standing beside it, two nurses, and one clerk. The clerk was marking off your name on the list. One nurse was filling syringes and laying them in a neat row on the table, the second swabbed alcohol on your arm. The doctor held the syringe up to check the level of the vaccine. The needle, at least a foot long, glistened in the light. Without a word the doctor stuck you with the needle, pushed in the plunger, and then placed the used needle in a box. The nurse put a band aid on your arm and then a teacher whisked you away. Some kids cried, some screamed, but for most of us it was so fast, so surreal that we didn't react at all. We just marched ahead as directed not really comprehending what was happening.
This all happened without consent forms, opt out provisions, public discussion or parental involvement. There were no consultants, no information meeting and no pretense of democracy. It just happened and the reaction was universal - everyone was grateful and amazed. The dark cloud was lifted and we got back to being kids again. Adults talked of baseball and the year's hay crop.
A miracle had taken place, the miracle of normalcy.
One Small Voice
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