Sunday, 7 August 2016

On vaccinations

I'm not sure how old I was when I almost died of measles. I can still just about remember the feeling of desperately trying to breathe. Back when the memory was clearer I asked my mam about it. I described the coughs that just kept going out, and the feeling that my lungs might never open up and let air in again. Was it whooping cough? "No", she said, "you had a very mild dose of whooping cough. That would be when you had measles. I'm surprised you remember. We thought we were going to lose you."

A couple of years ago a child I know was hospitalised with a high fever. Thanks to vaccination, measles has become so rare in Ireland that the hospital didn't even test for it, but when they came home the little one developed the classic rash. He had come in contact with someone who had measles, before he was old enough to get the vaccine.

That person, the one who gave my friend's child measles, may not have known they were sick. Not everyone who gets measles gets a bad dose. But the really powerful thing about vaccines is that so few people get any dose at all that the disease has nowhere to go. If everyone who can receive a vaccine against measles does so, the pockets of fertile land for the disease (people on immunosuppresants medication, kids too young to be vaccinated, the small percentage of people in whom the vaccine doesn't work) are so few and far between that the disease can't survive. We could make it *go away* like we did with smallpox, and have nearly done with polio. For my mother, polio was a fact of life. For me and my children polio is a fact of history.

And that's why you have a responsibility to vaccinate your kids.

I don't say that lightly. I've seen the injection-site swellings, and the vaccine-night fevers. I've winced and bitten my lip as my babies cried because someone stuck something sharp in them. But just as I have to teach them not to steal or hit, I have to teach their bodies not to pass on deadly diseases.