In the great “downsizing” of 2015, when we sold our house and began our “empty nester” years, I whittled away at my book collection. Many books were given away or sold. I kept only those that I felt a strong connection to. One of the books that I kept was “Mrs. Mike, the Story of Katherine Mary Flannigan”. I read it first in Middle School, and the story had a huge impact on me. It was the story of a New England girl who married a Canadian Mounted Policeman and ended up in the Northern Wilds of Canada. It was a tale of hardship and struggle, especially for someone who had never really known such concepts before.
What really stuck with me though, was that this young family lost all of their children in an epidemic, and like so many of that time period, ended up with a “second family” that was to give them some relief from the sorrow of children lost. This was before Jonas Salk and Marie Curie changed the world. This was before three strong generations of Americans who knew no real suffering from preventable childhood illnesses.
One of the only pictures I have ever seen of my Aunt Betty is of her lying serenely in her coffin. Aged 3, she succumbed to pertussis, commonly known as whooping cough. My grandparents lost two of seven children by the age of three. When Betty died, my grandmother was pregnant with her 6th child. It had been 8 years since her first-born son had died at 17 months. In addition to Betty, my grandparents had a 7 year old, 5 year old and an 8 month old in their home. And Betty and my 8 month old father were sick. Perilously so. There was so much concern that my 8 month old father would die on the night of August 28, 1935 that they held a prayer vigil for him, begging God to spare him, while quietly Betty took her last breath in the other room.
A now preventable childhood disease changed many lives that night. Aunt Betty died, and the suffering for my Grandparents was almost unbearable. How could God have taken one, while the other was being so dutifully covered with prayerful intercession? The story of his triumph against death, told many times as he grew up, gave my Dad both survivor’s guilt and an obsession with being worthy of God’s choosing him. So many lives affected by a single young death. A single death multiplied hundreds of times in the community that summer.
One of the great ironies of the “anti-vaxer” movement in the Western World has been that the people who fear vaccines for their children have no idea of the suffering of the people who lived before the relative childhood illness-free world they were raised in. They have no frame of reference for the consequences of trading one possible outcome (known, suspected and imagined vaccine side effects) for the certainty of another (life changing illness, disability and death from the preventable diseases). And unfortunately, the effects of preventible communicable or contagious illness are not isolated to a single person or family.
I truly feel for parents who believe, rightly or wrongly, that vaccines have caused their family harm. I also know that pharmaceutical companies can be greedy and are not to be trusted unquestioningly. But when I think of how many lives across entire communities are at risk (physically, emotionally and even spiritually) for each unvaccinated child who contracts measles, mumps, or pertussis, I realize these parents likely never had an Aunt Betty who they never had the chance to meet. They never had Grandparents who wistfully recounted stories of their children and neighborhoods being wiped out in the course of weeks. They never had a parent whose life was so changed by a dying sister that his gentle life of service was always tied to her passing.
I don’t know how to console a grieving family who feels vaccines are dangerous and caused them harm. All I know is that not vaccinating those who are healthy and eligible risks a century of advances in preventable death. If we’re afraid of the vaccines, let’s work to fix that. Let’s not reverse course! We owe this to ourselves, our children and future generations.