Why do I need to worry about the unvaccinated? It's a question that I have been asking a lot lately. We've all been vaccinated. We should be protected. Right? Maybe not.
I know first-hand what happens when you don't get vaccinated. My grandmother fell gravely ill in the 1940s. There were no vaccines back then. My mother and her older brother had been sick. My mother was home the day my grandmother was rushed, by ambulance, to the hospital. She remembers hiding under her bed. Terrified. It may have been that my mother and her brother somehow were exposed to, and carried, the virus but never got the virus itself - or did but never suffered the severe consequences of it. My grandmother certainly did. She was in her late 20s with 2 very young children at home. And for many months she clung to life in what was then known as an iron lung. She was in the hospital for a total of 9 months - That's practically a year. My grandmother was very fortunate - determined, head-strong and feisty, she came out alive. She was, however, paralyzed from the waist down. Permanently. So this beautiful young, vivacious and athletic woman who loved to ice skate and ride horses would no longer be able to do so. My grandmother was fortunate. For she was terribly privileged. Her husband had a car specifically designed for her so that she could drive without needing to use the foot pedals. He parked it outside her hospital window, as a prize - as an incentive for her to get well.
I only ever knew my grandmother in a wheelchair. Her wheelchair, to me, was as much a part of her accessories as was her beautiful jewelry or oversized sunglasses. My grandmother had polio and almost lost her life to it. She did lose the use of both her legs because of it. But, she never considered herself handicap and was never defined by the fact that she was in a wheelchair. (I refuse to use the word confined here - for she was never confined.) My grandmother had a driver who took her where she needed to go and she went on to live a long and productive life. She traveled around the world and purchased, built and renovated homes in Paris, Cannes, London, Oxfordshire and Umbria. It should be noted with emphasis that my grandmother was a woman of privilege - of a certain means - and she had financial freedom to be to live her life the way she wanted. I certainly would not be able to. Most of us would never be able to do so. We would be buried alive by today's medical costs - hospitalization and medication. Most of us could not afford special cars, drivers, or any of the luxuries she had. We'd have no travel. We'd not have much of anything.
Because of my grandmother, I am sure, I had all of my vaccines as a child. Every. Single. One. And for this reason, my children have also been vaccinated. I knew and know that the risks were minimal. I knew and know that autism was never proven to be related - that the brain in autistic children shows anomalies at birth. But I don't want to discuss autism now. Or ever. I want to talk about the vaccines and understand why my own family could be at risk. So I set out to do a little research to better educate myself.
What I have learned - and I am no scientist by any means and my language and terminology here is very basic - is that when a mass of people are inoculated a protective wall or barrier is created. You may have heard the term "herd" used. Like a herd of cattle - There's safety in numbers. But maybe someone in the herd cannot be vaccinated due to a serious autoimmune disorder or cancer, or he or she is too young. (And by the way, most autoimmune diseases can receive the vaccine.) Those vaccinated, when huddled together, can protect those who aren't. So let's say this herd entertains a visitor, from Europe, or someplace, and this person has not been vaccinated and has not been feeling well and happens to fall ill during his visit with you. From what I've learned measles itself is not where the danger lies, but in the complications that can arise from it such as pneumonia, swelling of the brain, deafness, seizures and mental retardation. Now, the very people we are trying to protect are now exposed to these other tragic possibilities.
Also, despite getting vaccinating and doing everything right, there's still a small chance you may not be fully protected. Depending on where you research there's between a 95 - 97% effective rate. When a disease such as measles has been wiped out, this is a great number. But when a disease is no longer considered extinct, some people, despite being vaccinated, will get sick. And there's really no way of knowing if you, or I, or my children, fall into that small percentage and get sick. Am I worried? For myself, no, not particularly. But I do have a child with severe asthma who gets into respiratory distress every time she gets sick and who seems to get pneumonia once a year. Both can be deadly and I would like to protect my child.
As for myself, I have just learned that I may need a booster. I'm not sure I ever received one - they were not deemed necessary when I was a child. I will look into this immediately. Allergic to eggs? That shouldn't stop you. You can still safely get the vaccine. And should you wonder why your child's friend hasn't been vaccinated due to an egg allergy, and yet she is sitting at the kitchen with your child, her bff, both happily snacking away on a delicious bakery cookie... You may want to scratch your head and wonder...
I realize that life itself can be perilous. And I realize that the chances of getting Measles is incredibly small, but I for one am not going to take that chance.
* This piece was written based on articles I have read in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal on the CDC's website, a few science related websites.