It’s August: A Time to Be Aware of Vaccine-Preventable Diseases

Image: Kona Gallagher

There are many simple things we can do to protect our children. Image: Kona Gallagher

August is National Immunization Awareness Month. The importance of vaccination is becoming a bigger issue every year, as 2014 has seen the highest number of measles cases reported since 2000. That is scary.

Too many people think that diseases like measles, mumps, whooping cough, and chickenpox are “normal childhood illnesses,” and that their kid’s immune system is strong enough to fight off these diseases. Too many people have forgotten what it was like before vaccines were commonplace. Too many people don’t stop to think about the long-term consequences of not vaccinating. Not just for them, but for those around them. Even for people they have never met.

When people tell me measles isn’t a big deal, I feel like I’ve been punched in the stomach.

I am one of those people you have never met.

My story starts before I was even born. My older brother was given the pertussis (whooping cough) vaccine. He was one of the small percentage of recipients that had a bad reaction. So when I was born, they skipped giving it to me. Not to worry, herd immunity would protect me — at least that’s what my doctor said.  And that is what we thought, until I was in high school, and a parent who didn’t believe in vaccinations sent her sick kid to school. The parent didn’t think it was a big deal — after all, her kid had a good immune system. She never stopped to think that there was a daycare on campus, and those babies were not as strong, or that in a school that large, someone would have a compromised immune system. My parents pulled me out of school for a week until it was safe to go back.

I didn’t really think of vaccination again until I was in West Africa serving in the Peace Corps. One of my projects was vaccination campaigns. When you are in the trenches, things look a lot different. Vaccinations were not a personal choice, they were a community necessity. We were a remote district, so there was there was no way we could vaccinate enough of the population to achieve herd immunity, not in the few years that we had been giving vaccinations, so the only way to protect a child was to give him or her the vaccine directly.

In my service area, the severity of vaccine-preventable diseases was apparent to everyone. Diseases like rubella and polio didn’t live in the faded memories of grandparents — they were a part of daily life. For example, my language tutor in my village had been disabled by polio when he was a child. He survived when many others didn’t, but by the time I was living there, polio had been nearly eradicated from the country.

Not so for measles. When people tell me measles isn’t a big deal, I feel like I’ve been punched in the stomach. Assuming you survive the disease, you may still walk away with permanent brain damage, vision and hearing loss, stillbirth and miscarriages. In the First World, with good sanitation, medical care, and nutrition, about 1 or 2 out of 1,000 children with measles will die.

But in places that don’t have those luxuries, measles kills 1 out of 4.

These numbers don’t really mean much to most people, so let me put them in perspective. One day, a man in his early 20s came to our clinic. He had a rash all over his face and body. Fearing measles, we drove him back to his village. Then we locked everyone who had been in the clinic that day in a room until they could prove they had been vaccinated, and sent people to find anyone with whom the man had come in contact on the trip to our village. Last, we quarantined his village: We literally drew a line in the dirt and said anyone who crossed it would be shot by people in the surrounding villages. That is how terrifying 1 out of 4 is to people who never had the benefit of growing up in a place where measles had been nearly eradicated. Luckily, no one crossed the line, because most of them knew what a measles outbreak meant and didn’t want to be responsible for bringing that upon their neighbors.

It turned out the man had chickenpox, and only two people died (one was a baby I had helped deliver).

Every year there was a meningitis outbreak. Since we didn’t have access to that vaccine, all we could do was prepare and pray. Preparation involved the men going outside and digging graves, because when the outbreak hit, there wouldn’t be time anymore. The women would cover their children in protective amulets. Then we would wait.

I can’t list everyone I knew who died of vaccine-preventable diseases, because after a while, you just can’t anymore. A part of you just shuts down. That is the only way you can deal with it.

When I came back to the United States, I never thought I would have to worry like that again.

I was wrong.

In 2011, I was living in Texas when I got the flu. It hit hard and it hit fast. My family kept telling me to go to the doctor, but I thought it was just a really bad flu, which only lasts 14 days. But when I hadn’t gotten any better after two weeks, and actually had gotten worse, I was rushed to the emergency department. I really thought I was going to die then. I know I am not the only one who thought that either. I don’t actually remember the last week of it. Between the fever and vomiting and coughing and inability to catch my breath, my memory is a little hazy.

I do remember the next six months, as I recovered from what turned out to be whooping cough. In Texas and Arizona, whooping cough incidence is higher than the national average. Lucky me.

Every year since, I have had pneumonia, which my doctor has told me to expect. My lungs were shredded by the disease and it could take me years to fully recover, if ever.

Planned Parenthood Arizona doesn’t vaccinate for measles, chickenpox, meningitis, or whooping cough. But they do vaccinate for something just as scary: cancer. Gardasil, which protects recipients from the strains of human papillomavirus (HPV) that cause 70 percent of cervical cancers and 90 percent of anal cancers, has been on the market since 2006. Planned Parenthood can also vaccinate you against hepatitis B virus. A chronic infection with this virus can lead to liver diseases, including liver cancer — in fact, worldwide, hepatitis B virus is the third-most common cause of cancer.

What an amazing world we live in, that we have access to anti-cancer vaccines. It’s like something out of science fiction! But you don’t have to get beamed aboard the Enterprise, all you have to do is go down to Planned Parenthood. Once you’ve wrapped your head around the fact that there are anti-cancer vaccines, and they are easily obtainable, keep in mind that Planned Parenthood can also vaccinate you against hepatitis A while you’re at it.

HPV, hepatitis A, and hepatitis B don’t kill as quickly as meningitis, and their symptoms are not always as obvious as measles, but they can and do cause severe illness, and even death.

The most important part of National Immunization Awareness Month — more than the fear and the statistics — is to be aware. Diseases like measles and whooping cough still exist, and they don’t have to. We eradicated smallpox. We have nearly eradicated polio. We could eradicate measles and HPV and so many other diseases. But that will never happen unless people are aware they still exist, aware of the facts about them, and aware that there are things we can do to prevent them. Things that are as easy as making an appointment at your nearest Planned Parenthood health center, health department, or doctor, and getting ourselves and our children vaccinated.

One thought on “It’s August: A Time to Be Aware of Vaccine-Preventable Diseases

  1. Thanks for sharing such a powerful post, Care — I thought it was a great use of personal narrative to support a larger argument.

    It was gut-wrenching to read about the devastation caused by vaccine-preventable illnesses in Africa, as well as your own brutal experience catching whooping cough. It’s awful that herd immunity was compromised in your community and you’re still living with the consequences to your health.

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