Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Cursed With Good Health

When I was in fourth grade, I wanted to be a doctor. This phase lasted until I dissected my first worm in Mrs Sellers’s eighth-grade Science class.

Anyway, since I wanted to be a doctor, I read all the books I could get my hands on about medical pioneers like Alexander Fleming, who discovered penicillin; Edward Jenner, who proved that inoculating people with the cowpox bacterium could prevent them from getting smallpox (the word “vaccination” comes from the Latin root “vacca” for “cow”); Frederick Banting, who discovered insulin, the drug that’s been keeping me alive for the past few years; and the Mayo Brothers, who founded the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. My knowledge of the work of the Mayo Brothers is particularly appropriate here.

You see, a good 30 or so years ago, a woman, incensed at all the “chemical additives” in our foods, wrote an angry letter about this to the Saturday Evening Post, specifically upset about the fact that she couldn’t find any salt without iodide added to it. After I face-palmed myself, I saw that the editors of the Post had a very wise, yet snarky, response, to her letter. Here’s a paraphrase of what they wrote:

Madam, since you are so incredibly ignorant about this issue, we’re going to use the next few pages to show you full-color photos of what happens when you don’t have iodide added to your salt.

And with that, they indeed filled the next two pages with full-color photos of people with goiters, the huge growths that occur from an iodine deficiency. These were very common among people who lived inland, and with little access to iodine-rich foods like fish. The Mayos and others figured out that the best way to get the proper amount of iodine to people was to add it to something they used everyday: table salt. And the fact that just about all table salt includes a small amount of sodium iodide is why most of us have never seen a goiter.

The fact that this woman had never heard of goiters, never seen one, and didn’t know how to prevent them, is what allowed her to make her ignorant comment about “chemical additives” in our foods. Had she been around at the time that the Mayos made this discovery, and had she lived inland with relatives who were suffering from goiters, she would’ve been among the first to clamor for iodized salt.

With that in mind, the current clamor by some people against regular vaccinations for childhood diseases, and the mindset that they’re simply profit-making tools of the “evil medical-pharmaceutical establishment” has come from people who live in an era in which they’ve never had to see any of the tragic results of some of what are now easily-preventable childhood diseases. Because they’ve never known people who lost children to diphtheria, they don’t understand how thrilled people were when a vaccine came out to prevent it. Because they never knew anyone who was crippled with polio, perhaps even to the point of having to live in an “iron lung,” they can’t grasp the urgency with which resources were directed to come up with a vaccine against it. Because they remember the measles, mumps, and German measles as simply one of a handful of mildly annoying childhood diseases that they successfully weathered with no problem, they’re unaware of just how devastating the complications of those diseases can be. They don’t realize that “back in the day,” medical research was working its hardest to try to come up with a vaccination for these diseases, in order to ease suffering, and not as a part of some evil profit-making plan.

But because we’ve been “cursed with good health,” as a result of these vaccines, some of us just don’t get it. Because of this, some people have become more concerned with the risk of the vaccination than with the risk of the disease.

To be certain, there are risks inherent in everything. Every time I cross the street, I run the risk of being hit by a car; and yet none of us lives our lives staying only on our block out of fear of a hit and run. We realize that that risk is extremely small compared to the benefit of venturing out in the world. There are indeed risks inherent with vaccines, but compared to the risks involved with getting the actual disease, those risks are incredibly small. Of course, to paraphrase a statement once made about unemployment, no one is ever 0.000001% dead. That one in a million person with the deadly reaction to the vaccine is still 100% dead, and if it’s your child, you’ll likely spend the rest of your life asking “what if?”

On the other hand, the families suffering in the great Texas measles outbreak that came as a result of people not getting their kids vaccinated are probably also asking themselves “what if?”

For now I just want to say one very important thing:

For Pete’s sake, get your kid vaccinated already before you’re cursed with bad health!

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