My experience with German Measles
I was scanning the news yesterday and saw this item:
I also know that the CDC just released a report expressing their concern about a large outbreak of measles in Europe. The CDC identified several barriers to defeating measles (rubeola):
“Principal factors contributing to decreased demand for measles vaccination in EUR include lack of knowledge of the seriousness of the disease, resulting in a reluctance to be vaccinated; skepticism about the benefits of vaccination; fear of adverse effects from being vaccinated; and limited health-care access for some underserved populations” [emphasis mine]
The one thing I can talk about is the seriousness of the disease. And given that humans are known to respond more strongly to stories than statistics, maybe this will help.
This is a photo of my mom (who is 5’2″), and my aunt Jan. When this photo was taken, I think my aunt was around 35. You will notice a couple things immediately–she’s very short and she has huge thick glasses on. What you can’t see is that she is also deaf, and does not have the maturity of an average adult her age.
My grandmother was pregnant with my aunt long before the vaccine for measles was common. My aunt was born before 1963, the year the vaccine was approved in the US. (I was born before 1963 too, BTW. This story could easily be about me.) My aunt was born with poor vision, little hearing, physical stunting, and what at the time was called “mental retardation.” Classic congenital rubella (German Measles–this is the R in the MMR vaccine: Measles-Mumps-Rubella).
It was a tough challenge for my grandmother and my grandfather, but I think especially for my dad. He had a sister just 2 years younger than him, but oh so very different, in the same school. Because he’s a Lutheran from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, he has never talked about this. (Frankly, he never talks about anything personal–that “Norweigan Bachelor Farmer” thing is based in truth.)
My dad is brilliant. He’s in his 80’s now, and still serves as an engineering consultant all over the world. Ever heard of ISO 9000? Yeah. My dad helped write that standard. (Something I only found out a few years ago. Seriously. He’s not a talker.) I know that he helped his sister finish high school. I know that when I try to get him to talk about her, he loved her and found her immensely frustrating.
I can only really tell you what I thought, growing up with a disabled aunt. It was really frustrating, because I couldn’t communicate with her. At all. And because her hearing was bad (eventually she became completely deaf and blind), she tended to shout a lot, which was hard for me to understand as a kid. It was scary. As I got older, I understood what was going on better, but Jan had a short attention span–so she’d look away in the middle of the sentence, and then fill in the gaps on her own. This…often led to real shouting.
Jan lived in a special “school” from which we had to go retrieve her for the holidays. I don’t know what they did there, although she was a master craftswoman. She could knit ANYTHING. If you could get her to focus, she could create amazing stuff. She also was in and out of the hospital for most of her life, for liver problems, kidney problems, and eye problems. My grandfather was a teacher, and I have no idea how they paid for all of this.
It’s clear to me, looking back, that the remnants of a brilliant mind were in there. What would Aunt Jan have been able to do if her mother hadn’t been infected by German measles? What amazing bit of knowledge would she have contributed to the world, like her brother the engineer?
I don’t know. But I do know there was a lot of emotional pain for my family, and literal pain for Aunt Jan.
It doesn’t have to be that way.
We now have the ability to prevent both kinds of measles, polio, and many other diseases that my parents were terrified about when I was a kid. I remember my mom crying with relief when I got my polio vaccination at a public health clinic. At last, her kid was safe. I wouldn’t end up in an iron lung.
For those of us that are old enough to remember having classmates with leg braces, it is difficult to understand why anyone would NOT want to get a vaccination. We have seen lives destroyed and stunted by diseases that are now, thanks to science, able to be prevented. [edited to add: In trying to convey my passion whilst writing this, I was unclear. I am talking about folks that died in terms of “lives destroyed”, not people who are in leg braces.]
The History of Vaccines website is a great resource for folks that are trying to convince those reluctant to vaccinate, or just curious about the history of vaccines. You can see a doctor that treated many cases of congenital rubella syndrome in the 1960’s talk about his experiences in this video.
I can’t tell you how disappointed I am that I am too old for the HPV vaccine. I remember the pain of a good college friend discovering he had HPV. He was devastated. As an ethical dude, he knew he had to tell his dates that if they slept with him, they risked catching a potentially disfiguring–or deadly–disease.
You kids get off my lawn and go get vaccinated, damn it!
What is YOUR story about vaccination?
The Afternoon Inquisition (or AI) is a question posed to you, the Skepchick community. Look for it to appear Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays, and Sundays at 3pm ET.