When you don’t understand the problem, you can enjoy the luxury of suspecting the solution. But taking so-called “normal childhood diseases” for granted has led us to the verge of resurrecting some of the ’50s greatest hits – measles and other supercontagious maladies.
Childhood diseases” … to today’s privileged 21st century parents, these viral scourges may sound harmless and even ever-so-slightly adorable, like cute Playskool versions of the really bad stuff. A sore throat, a little itching and a few days off from school, followed by lifetime immunity: Now, what’s so bad about that?
Those of us rooted in the good old days can tell you: Plenty!
I asked my Facebook friends of a similar vintage what they remember about the epidemics we all took for granted. Much like other memories we love to share with whippersnappers — like walking miles to school in the snow uphill both ways and playing tag and hopscotch instead of video gaming — these stories do tend to portray our suffering as epic.
But measles and its ilk are on the verge of becoming business-as-usual for our own grandchildren. And unlike having to survive without video games, this is not an improvement.
Along with most of my then-robust, rosy-cheeked peers, I tended toward ridiculous good health as a kid growing up in the ’50s. Yet a good share of my most vivid childhood memories seem to revolve around getting sick, sometimes seriously — chickenpox, mumps and multiple strains of measles.
Freedom certainly did reign in those good old days — especially for the mindless clouds of viruses that periodically swept through our unvaccinated schools and neighborhoods. Classrooms were decimated and mothers were pushed to wit’s end when chicken pox or mumps or measles was epidemic.
Isolation was the only defense in concerned parents’ arsenal, albeit an impractical one. More prevalent was the fatalistic view that children might as well suffer through them early and get it over with … a sad alternative that was joyfully erased by the introduction of vaccines in the 1960s. Today, though, it’s been resurrected by a growing cadre of paranoid parents who’ve never themselves gone through the diseases they’re blithely inviting for their families.
The measles virus infects 90 percent of those who are exposed to it for the first time, with chickenpox a close rival. Sounds about right, based on my peers’ record. Most of us were preschoolers or elementary-aged when we broke out in coughing, sore throats and/or spots of various design. There was nothing cute about it.
Of the supercontagious Big Three bugs, mumps was probably least worrisome. This was because while our throats did burn and our cheeks inflate like chipmunks’, Mom’s prescription was an infinite ration of Popsicles. (Of course, mumps was a far more serious threat for adults, especially men. We know several who are not grandpas today because of its most serious side effect.)
Chickenpox could drive you nearly mad. It itched like crazy and, unlike mumps, did not come with Popsicles. Instead, parents soaked their offspring in warm, cloudy baths infused with baking soda or oatmeal. They daubed on nasty pink calamine lotion and worked hard to thwart the irresistible urge to scratch. We endured days of wearing socks on our hands to prevent us from from picking scabs. I still owe a scar or two from my childhood not to heroic exploits, but to chickenpox.
But which was worst? For most of us, it was measles. I feel I am personally qualified to settle this question because, as a third-grader, I came down with chickenpox in October. After exactly two days back in Miss Valentino’s classroom, I developed mumps. Then my family moved over Christmas, and my schooling resumed in a new locale that was dancing to its own viral rhythm. Voila! Measles by Valentine’s Day.
My friends share my recollections of convalescing from measles: Loooong, booooring days at home in darkened bedrooms, unable to play with friends, peruse comic books or even watch those newfangled TVs. Measles made most of us really sick as well as distinctly unattractive, covered with a colorful rash from under our hair to inside our socks.
Vision damage must have been most parents’ biggest worry, given the prevalence of stories about darkened rooms. But other boogeymen also loomed. One friend blames his hearing deficit today on the ear infection that accompanied measles. Some cases turned into pneumonia. Encephalitis, swelling of the brain, could be fatal. And like mumps, both chickenpox and measles were far more serious for adults, with pregnant women rightfully terrified by the very real threat of birth defects.
And now these diseases have re-emerged as close to home as the campus of the University of Minnesota, where a young man was diagnosed this week.
The rate of childhood vaccinations here in Minnesota and North Dakota is said to still be strong, compared at least with Marin County California. Parents in both states, however, can opt out of the requirement that school-age kids be immunized for “conscientiously held beliefs of the parent or guardian.” (Exemptions are also provided, of course, for the children who cannot have vaccines because of medical issues.)
Here is a conscientiously held belief shared by those of us who experienced these diseases ourselves: Vaccinate your offspring today, as we dearly wish our parents could have done for us in the ’50s … and as we ourselves did for our own now-grown-up children. Or keep them away from our grandkids.
When our children were young, the epidemics that once bespeckled us seemed as quaint (living our sanitized First World lives) as leprosy and consumption. Oh, that it could stay that way forever!
Vaccines are safe. They keep kids from suffering. And just think of the other,unexpected benefits! The advent of vaccination in the ’60s freed millions of parents and school administrators all over America to turn their attention to the really big threats to the younger generation … miniskirts, long hair and rock ‘n’ roll.