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Terry McAteer: Vaccines face a generational and historical gap

Terry McAteer

Every Oct. 28 until his death in 1995, my mother, Frances, would send Dr. Jonas Salk a birthday card and a note of thanks.

You see, my mom was eternally thankful to Dr. Salk, inventor of the polio vaccine, for his work because one of her three sons had contracted polio before the advent of the vaccine.

She felt his efforts helped prevent polio from inflicting her two other sons.

The vaccination “debate” has again reared its head in spring and summer due to a nationwide outbreak of measles this past winter. California pediatrician and State Senator Richard Pan has led the fight in this arena with a bill that would restrict parents from obtaining medical exemptions from their local physicians. Some Republican assemblymen and senators have stepped up to oppose the bill, due to their belief that this legislation imposes a loss of parental rights. Dr. Pan and others argue that the state needs to take these drastic steps to insure that more viral diseases do not harm the general population.

The divide is between those who remember disease outbreaks and those who don’t.

I think this country is in the midst of a generational problem that has divided some of our citizenry.

The divide is between those who remember disease outbreaks and those who don’t. I contracted measles, mumps and chicken pox prior to the advent of vaccines. I wouldn’t want any child to experience what I did. Today’s parents will see me as spreading the vaccination “scare” and as an infringement on their right as a parent to determine what is in the best interest of their child.

I’m not a scientist, but a historian by training and a quick look at history tells a pretty ugly tale. Yellow Fever, Smallpox and Influenza were the three largest killers in recent world history as they far exceeded deaths associated with war, cancer and heart disease.

In fact, estimates show that nearly 300 million people were killed worldwide by smallpox in just the 20th century alone. Thanks to the worldwide smallpox inoculation program this disease has been eradicated.

As for Yellow Fever, in the late 18th and 19th centuries wealthy East Coast city residents would flee to their country estates every summer to escape the disease which killed tens of thousands of poor and middle class residents left to reside in sweltering urban Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington, D.C. Yellow Fever, too, has been mainly controlled due to vaccines and mosquito abatement.

Finally, the flu was, and still is, a major killer. My grandmother, Mabel Twohig, used to talk about the 1918 Influenza outbreak in San Francisco which killed three of her siblings and completely set the city into panic mode.

Mabel, Frances and I represent three generations that know the toll that viral diseases inflict on families and on society. Yet today’s parents are unaware of their family history lessons. A study of family genealogy in past history will show the death of countless children and family members from what are today preventable diseases, thanks to advances in modern science through the use of vaccines.

I end on one final historic note with the words that many say when someone sneezes: “Bless you!”

The original saying, “May God Bless You,” was developed by Pope Gregory during the plague of 590 AD as a means to overcome the fear that a sneeze might be the first sign of the onslaught of a communicable disease.

Family and friends would then ask for God to bless that person from coming down with the disease. Amen!

Terry McAteer is a member of The Union Editorial Board. His views are his own and do not represent the views of The Union or its editorial board members. Contact him at editboard@theunion.com.


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