Things That Go BUMP In The Night
I remember getting chicken pox as a kid. I was 5, maybe 6, I had them everywhere, and I mean everywhere. I was so miserable, I remember crying constantly and my mother slathering creams all over my body, begging me not to itch. Once they were gone, I don’t recall ever thinking about them again. Out of sight, out of mind! Well, that is, until I had kids, and it came time for vaccinations. With my first child, it was a no brainer, vax, vax, vax!! But with my second, I was introduced to the anti-vax movement and a whole new world of information (or is it?). Vaccines are widely considered to be one of the greatest medical advancements of the 20th century, literally millions of lives saved, but yet some of us are so afraid of them now.
It’s hard to believe that the leading causes of death in 1900s America were influenza (the flu), pneumonia, and tuberculosis. All three of things now have vaccines (kinda, looking at you flu vaccine) and are no longer even on the radar for causes of death (well, pneumonia is, but that’s related to cancer and is a whole other story). You can see in the graphic below that in the span of 50 years, influenza, pneumonia and tuberculosis, formerly the top 2 causes of death, aren’t even in the top five, and 60 years after that they aren’t even in the top 10. What a difference 110 years makes! It is easy to say that vaccines lead to the eradication of these causes of death, which is partly true but is not the whole story.
How Did We Get Here….
Have you ever traveled overseas? Me either, but during high school my friend and her family traveled to Africa and had to get something crazy like 16 shots (vaccines) before they could travel. What the heck?! Yea, thats because, believe it or not, all countries are different. Different people, different animals, different bacteria, different everything. So when “new immigrants” came to America from 1870-1920 they brought with them all the wonderful germs and bacteria from their homelands. But even before immigrants arrived in America they endured horrific travel conditions. Crammed into tiny quarters aboard ships with poor ventilation, no sunlight and food that spoiled early into the journey, the spread of disease was inevitable, and often devastating, especially to children. Nothing like the glorified version we see in the 1997 James Cameron film, Titanic (except for the majority of the immigrants dying in the end, that was probably accurate.)
Of course, germs and bacteria from foreign countries wouldn’t have been all that bad (maybe) if living conditions in urban America had been ready for it. Sadly, they weren’t. Sanitary conditions of the late 1800s/early 1900s are unimaginable in most of today’s society. We’re not perfect, but I’d say we’re about 832974927494% better than we use to be. No sewer or drainage systems, just human and animal waste covering the streets for everyone to enjoy. And let’s not forget tenement living! Talk about being friendly with your neighbor. More than 80,000 tenements housed around 2.3 million people with poor ventilation and sunlight, crammed around 12 adults in a room only 13 feet across and had infant deaths as high as 1 in 10. These facts stunned the American people when they were presented in the book, “How the Other Half Lives” by Danish author and photographer Jacob Riis. These close living conditions, much like those aboard the ships to America, were a breeding ground for disease and its spread, much like the Cholera epidemic of 1849 that swept through the overcrowded living conditions of the lower east side claiming over 5,000 lives, many of them the poor.
Don’t Drop The Soap
If traveling and living conditions had been then what they are today, would diseases like the flu have spread as easily and been as deadly? Its doubtful. After getting your annual flu shot-which is only 50-60% effective estimates the CDC-the next best step you can take to prevent getting the flu virus is washing your hands. Something so simple and mundane, yet we see the repercussions of not having access to clean running water and knowing simple hygiene is devastating. The CDC states, “By 1900, however, the incidence of many of these diseases had begun to decline because of public health improvements…” But what about diseases like polio, measles and diphtheria? In developed countries, those with access to clean running water, proper sewer systems and sanitation as well as vaccines, these diseases are all but eradicated. Measles is the exception though, it’s made a comeback in recent years, accredited mainly to the anti-vax movement.
My point is, millions of people died 120 years ago simply because they didn’t have the “luxuries” of clean running water and Dial soap. Today, in poor communities, sanitation is still an issue. The tenements of the 1900s have been replaced with the slum housing of the 2000s. If you’re poor and you have to choose between buying soap or buying food, yeah, food definitely wins. In these scenarios, we should be very grateful for vaccines. History has shown us what happens when disease meets with subpar living conditions. Thanks to state and federal programs that provide medical care to low income persons, vaccines are available to everyone, so regardless of your living conditions, you still have a chance to be spared some life threatening diseases.
I’ll be honest, I haven’t had a flu shot in over 10 years-and I haven’t had the flu in over 10 years either. Am I fully vaccinated? Yes. Are my children fully vaccinated? Absolutely. I’m an advocate of “you do you” because I hate people telling me what they think is best for my family. You don’t pay the bills, you don’t get a say.