We often think of vaccines in numbers. Data and statistics about the efficacy, safety, and usage. But there’s a human side to the power of vaccines.
In writing this, I wondered if I should focus on the cousin born deaf because her mother acquired rubella while pregnant, or my mom’s bout with swine flu in 2009. Maybe the family friend who acquired polio as a child before the vaccine arrived and who has spent her entire adult life in a wheelchair and now in her late 60s, gets to experience the debilitating pain that is post-polio syndrome. All of their stories need to be told, and hopefully, some of them will guest post one day.
I decided to focus on what I know best, which is my daughter. I have two of them and they light up my world.
I returned to work following the birth of my second child. Handing over my tiny 6 week old baby to a complete stranger wasn’t easy for me, but like most families, we needed to be a two-income household, and I could only afford to take 6 weeks off unpaid.
Her daycare teachers adored her. She has a naturally sweet disposition, so it’s easy to see how they became smitten. I knew that they were providing the best care possible to my child and I trusted them (and still do) completely.
One day in February, when my daughter was about 8 weeks, I walked into her classroom and saw what every parent dreads, the white sign on the front of the door stating that my child had been exposed to something highly contagious. It was the flu. An 8 month old in the room had contracted it from her older sibling and exposed the rest of the class. Most of the older children had received their flu vaccine. But my baby and the other child under 6 months had not. I felt my heart fall into my stomach. I knew what the flu could do to babies like her, and I was terrified.
In young children, in anybody, the flu has the ability to cause serious complications. Encephalitis, multi-organ failure, sepsis, and pneumonia are just a few of the very serious side effects of the flu and young children are a high-risk group.
That other child got sick. He spent a week in the hospital, tiny, fighting fever, and struggling to breathe. At the time, he was only 4 months old, which is too young to receive the flu vaccine. Fortunately, he made a full recovery, something that the teachers and I celebrated with an enormous sigh of relief.
We were lucky that our daughter did not get sick. Her saving grace seemed to be her relative isolation as a non-mobile infant. Given her age, she did not interact with the other children. It was purely luck and the efforts on the part of her daycare providers to maintain a hygienic environment by frequent hand-washing and getting their flu shot.
Not all children are that fortunate. The flu is still responsible for approximately 7,000 to 26,000 pediatric hospitalizations a year, and in the years since 2004, it has killed between 37 and 171 children annually.
There are so many things in this world that have the desire or ability to harm our children. We can’t protect them from everything, but vaccine-preventable diseases are one area where we can get the upper hand. Children don’t have to die from whooping cough, meningitis, or even flu. It’s not just a matter of increasing treatment options. We can keep these and other diseases from our communities and that starts with vaccinating.