Linda Jack: A look back before mass vaccinations
Emily Lavin’s July 8 article in The Union about the immunization law signed by Gov. Brown suggests that the issue of vaccination of children will likely continue to be a topic of debate. California’s anti-vaccination advocates seem determined to try to overturn the law, or at least expand the personal exemption option.
In my opinion, the vaccination discussion would be better informed if we considered the experiences of our 19th- and 20th-century ancestors who knew firsthand the consequences of living in an unvaccinated population.
Recently, I spent several weeks in university archives reading family letters to and from several men who came to the Northern Mines during the Gold Rush period. To be sure, the letters are filled with the important national events of the era: the Mexican War and the opening of the West; the rise of the secessionist movement in the South; and the Civil War.
But every letter that I read also provided a window into the day-to-day reality of life in a society plagued by unpreventable communicable diseases. In these family letters, the most important news was: Who is well? Who is ill? Who is recovering? Who has died?
Although illness and death visited often, worry and grief were not lessened because they were frequently experienced. On Feb. 2, 1863, Eugenia Means wrote to her sister, Harriet, concerning the death of their three-year old niece: “I know you will be shocked to learn that little Fannie died today after a few hours’ illness …Yesterday she was playing in the garden and came in the house, looking very pale … and in the night she became insensible and died.” Eugenia did not have a chance to finish her letter before she learned that Fannie’s brother, James, who family members called “their little sugar box,” had died soon thereafter; baby Zebulon, died two days later. Writing of the parents, Eugenia could find only one possible consolation: “Poor cousin David and Lizzie. I hope they will see God’s hand of love in their terrible bereavement.”
Although children were the frequent victims of communicable diseases, adults were not spared. When Franklin English wrote to his mother on Oct. 9, 1861, from his military encampment near Germantown, Virgina, he reported that two-thirds of the men in his regiment, the 1st Corps, (Confederate) Army of the Potomac, had died either of measles or the effects of that disease. Franklin’s experience would not have been out of line with other regiments in the Confederate and Union armies. The College of Physicians of Philadelphia’s History of Vaccines reports that during the first year of the Civil War, there were 21,676 reported cases of measles.
But we need not to go as far back as the Gold Rush or the Civil War, to find family members who died of diseases that are now preventable by vaccination.
My paternal grandmother watched four of her eight children die of just such diseases: in 1897 six-year old Opal, and two-year old Robert died within two weeks of one another; 15-year-old Glicy died in 1904; and 11-year-old George died in 1912. Although another son survived poliomyelitis, he suffered his whole life from the debilitating side effects of that disease.
As is the case with any form of medical treatment for children, including immunizations, risk is always a valid concern of parents. And modern medicine can now mitigate some of the effects of those communicable diseases when they do occur. But the risk of returning to a population that is only partially vaccinated would be an unthinkable turn of events to our grandparents and great-grandparents who saw so many of their children die of diseases now preventable by vaccination. It should be an equally unthinkable turn of events to us.
Linda Jack lives in Grass Valley.
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