WASHINGTON – Just when you think we finally live in an age of enlightenment, especially in the advancement of science, someone comes along to remind us that actually we are only a short distance from 1885 – the date most associated with the birth of modern medicine.
The someone in this instance was my youngest son who lives in California and seems to have taken it upon himself to live up to that state’s billing as the home of organic foods, Buddha moms who regard canned baby food as poison, and a breeding ground for goofy ideas. He had called more than a month ago to inform me that the latest crisis in his life was the refusal of a pediatrician to further treat my then 11-month-old grandson.
Perhaps you can guess why given the chain of events that have followed that conversation.
If you speculated that it was over some disagreement about inoculation, you would be absolutely correct. The pediatrician said that she could not afford to endanger her other patients by treating a child whose parents refused to accept the reality of vaccination. After a long moment of stunned silence on hearing the news, my only retort was a simple, “Are you nuts?”
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Trying to control my feelings before they turned the incident into an apoplectic seizure, I calmly tried to explain that failing to accept that childhood diseases can turn quite ugly was insanity and that he needed to cure himself now. His reply was that these diseases, measles and so forth and even polio, had been pretty much eradicated and that there should be more concern about the potential side effects of vaccination.
“Why do you think they are no longer a problem?” says I, struggling not to stammer and slobber in disbelief. “And how long do you think that will be the case, if everyone thinks like you do?”
I always had considered him quite intelligent … well at least until on a visit I took him to a grocery store and he proceeded to nick me for more than $300 worth of exotic organic foods.
Having come along before there was protection against a catastrophic occurrence of anything but smallpox, I had firsthand knowledge of what can happen. I had every childhood disease – measles, whooping cough, chickenpox, and mumps. My kid sister even somehow contracted diphtheria as a tot forcing us all to be quarantined.
Like tens of millions of youngsters of that time, we lived in terror of infantile paralysis as our parents severely restricted our summer activities to narrow the possibility and prayed it would work.
The other day as the news came of the measles outbreak in his state, one that quickly spread to neighboring states, I received another call from him on another subject and casually asked whether he still insisted on a position of obstinate ignorance (not exactly in those words). He said the child, who had just passed his first birthday, would be inoculated.
“Fine,” I replied and left it at that, although I’m not certain there isn’t a lingering belief that there is a correlation between vaccine and autism or some other thoroughly discredited theory.
Do some children react badly to the process? Of course, but very, very few and measured against the number who benefit, the risk is infinitesimal and overwhelmingly outweighed by the benefits.
Where, one has to wonder, do these notions originate? It is one thing, it seems to me, to adopt eating and learning beliefs that are out of the mainstream, but quite another to endanger children and those around them with a stubborn refusal to accept the beneficial evidence. That simply is that vaccines have been one of the greatest achievements of modern medicine, saving only the good Lord knows how many lives and how much misery.
Had they been available to me and my siblings, it would have relieved our parents of stress both physical and economical. The strain on my mother of nursing my sister and of protecting the rest of us from a highly contagious and deadly disease that a vaccine has now eliminated was enormous. My father returned from a business trip to find himself shut out of the house during the quarantine period, leaving it all up to her.
The measles threat is once again a reminder that enlightenment is relative, even in an educated society.
Dan Thomasson is an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service and a former vice president of Scripps Howard Newspapers. Readers may send him email at: firstname.lastname@example.org.