A personal history of vaccination

How things have changed in 50 years. Kids used to be practically assured of getting those "childhood diseases."

I’ll have you know that I seldom feel my age of a full half-century and change. I still consider myself to be enjoying the full flush of youth (all right, the outside edge of it). Just a young guy starting out in life.

But then something will occur or come to mind that makes me feel that I’ve lived a very long time indeed.

For instance, to coincide with the current measles outbreak (the largest in B.C.s history) and now another in nearby Alberta, my immunization history card arrived in the mail, swimming up through all those decades like a bottom-feeding fish in the lake of memory. A relative found it in a box and sent it to me. Suddenly I feel just as one who was born during the John Diefenbaker years should feel.

The blue card is creaky with age, like a soldier’s paybook from World War I. It is inscribed with my late mother’s elegant cursive handwriting and various stamped dates from the Saskatchewan Dept. of Public Health, starting in 1962.

The card informs me that as an infant, I had almost more vaccinations than you can shake a stick at — for smallpox (’62 and ’68), diptheria, pertussis, tetanus and polio (10 times, ’62 through ’78); I also received oral polio vaccinations five times, ’62 through ’78.

(I also received a tetanus booster shot in Calgary in 1998. This was the only medical attention I received when I was taken to a very crowded, chaotic Foothills Hospital after being hit by a car).

So for this week — National Immunization Week — I am aware of my vaccination history down to the smallest detail.

But perhaps the most interesting aspect of this old blue card is the list of so-called “childhood diseases” I had. I had them all. Red measles in 1965, chicken pox when I was in Grade 1, German measles (rubella) in the summer of 1971, and later in that same summer the mumps — the famous mumps (my mother and I actually had mumps at the same time).

The tactics of infection back then weren’t as extreme as you hear about — like deliberately sending one’s children to contact the disease from another infected kid, to “get it over with,” but it was close. We all turned up as per normal at the little country school we attended and waited to catch whatever was going around.

If we suspected we were coming down with the mumps, the teacher would make us do the pickle test. You chomped down on a pickle, and if this hurt your jaws you likely had the mumps and were sent home straight away. I remember really wanting to catch the mumps, so I could have the week or two off school. With my usual superb timing, I caught both the measles and the mumps during summer vacation. I lay in bed for days, my jaws wrapped up, watching the one channel of TV available to us back then. My, what a long time I’ve lived.

Nowadays, of course, a concerted attempt to wipe out these childhood diseases appears to be on the edge of success — thinking in terms of a half-century, of course. Some would say that the fact that B.C. is experiencing its biggest measles outbreak in history is a sign of the edge of failure.

But the point is that whereas 50 years ago a kid was practically assured of getting measles, as part of life, these days a case of measles is rare, the outbreak in the Lower Mainland and Alberta notwithstanding.

The arguments against immunization have been raised since the days of Edward Jenner, who developed smallpox vaccine. I can understand how such a process can create suspicion. Whatever one thinks about Andrew Wakefield and his troubled “science” in 1998 (his research linking vaccination and autism was proved to be fraudulent), there’s something counter-intuitive about protecting oneself against a disease by injecting one’s body with a substance associated with that disease.

But then again, the last case of smallpox appeared in the world in 1978. It no longer exists. I was the last generation to have been vaccinated for smallpox. No one would willingly expose one’s kids to smallpox, “to get it over with.” Or polio — frighteningly common two generations ago, now on the verge of being wiped out too.

Why shouldn’t we eliminate these “childhood diseases,” render them historical only? What purpose do they serve? Does contacting mumps as a child make us stronger adults? Does chicken pox purify the blood?

A society free of disease would be a sign that society is moving towards an ultimate good.