Yesterday Josie went in for one year check up and got four vaccination shots. It is certainly not fun to hold your tiny trusting daughter in a straight jacket hold while two nurses poke needles into her little legs. The howling is heart wrenching. But you do it because, as they say, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and because I believe in science.
At the turn of the 20th century, the average life expectancy in the United State was 49.2 years – the same as Somalia today. Today, we all expect to live into our 70s barring any calamitous accidents along the way. We have the idea of ‘public health’ for this dramatic advance in life expectancy, specifically things we all take for granted today: clean water and sewers systems. Certainly few of us would choose to defecate into a bucket today, throw it into the street, and then walk downhill to the stream to fetch water with the same bucket. But it’s epidemiology, perhaps public health’s greatest achievement, that many in my community are now choosing to ignore. Vaccination programs against polio, smallpox, diptheria, and yellow fever allowed us to focus on the ‘older diseases’ that we have the luxury of focusing on today: cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer’s etc. These victories though were long ago, and we are only reminded of them when we travel to tropical third world countries. Living here, we are fortunate to have a herd immunity, that protects most everyone, even if they are not immunized. It’s from within this reality that people who choose not to vaccinate their children are able to indulge in conspiracy theories. I am not a conspiracy theorist:
- I do not believe the government is poisoning us with “chem-trails”
- Global warming is not a mass hoax upheld by 99% of the scientific community for unstated motivations.
- I really doubt that intelligent aliens travel hundreds of light years across the galaxy to kidnap us in our sleep for the purpose of probing our rectums.
- I think I will wake up this year on December 22 and I will be just fine.
- I don’t believe that getting you kid vaccinated is going to make him autistic.
Every parent has to weigh the risks and benefits when it comes to vaccinating their children. I agree: the risk of not vaccinating your child today against something like smallpox is very small. However, when the swift and preventable death of my child is on the line, I’m not taking any chances. (And if you are a conspiracy theorist – ask yourself this: do you think the next terrorist attack will be like the last one? Or will it be something much more sinister, and contagious?)
We have lost so such perspective with the deterioration of our collective memory. Today, history is what happened yesterday. Can any of us living on the Olympic Peninsula really imagine that just hundred years ago, you would still see Native Americans in traditional cedar clothes (those very few who survived the smallpox epidemic incidentally)? Two hundred years ago, cedar dugout canoes would have been the primary means of travel in these waters. And 350 years ago, this land and its people would have been completely unaware of the western world.
Often when a visitor from somewhere outside the Northwest comes to visit, we’ll will go for a hike in the woods somewhere on Peninsula. Invariably they will comment on how “big these trees are!” This will be on Forest Service or State land, and the trees among us, while tall, are second growth, or more likely third. Lowland old-growth forests are extremely rare in the Puget Sound – there is even a hiking guidebook on visiting them, and it is a thin paperback. When I explain that these trees are very young, and matchsticks in comparison to their forebears that existed before colonization, they are flabbergasted. I have to remember that ithey didn’t grow up around conifers. Around here, old grainy black and white photographs of mustached men standing five abreast in the face cut of some giant Douglas Fir are a common sight on interpretive displays at parks or roadside rest stops. Without their reminder, we would all suffer from a kind of collective amnesia of the natural potential of our forests if given the time to grow.
Let us hope that the 58 infants last year who contracted pertussis in our state, including two who died, will remind us of the ability of very small things to topple the large and many.