My conversation with the school nurse at the start of every academic year ends with me say this: If anybody comes down with chickenpox, call me immediately -- it could save my daughter's life.
Chickenpox – deadly?
Most adults remember chickenpox as an irritating childhood rite of passage. No one ever died from excessive itching, right? I didn't, though I still bear a small, circular scar on my right cheek from my fingers getting the best of me during my bout. U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistics, however, show that before development of a vaccine in the mid-1990s, chickenpox killed more than 100 children annually and hospitalized over 10,000 for complications, including pneumonia, meningitis and encephalitis. The more severe consequences tended to happen to those with underlying health issues, such as a comprised autoimmune system.
My daughter has lived for the past 13 years with juvenile myositis, a rare disease that puts her immune system into overdrive to the point that it attacks healthy cells, making her severely weak and ill. Daily medications slow her immune response to keep the disease in check while also trying to reboot the system much like you would turn off, then on a malfunctioning computer. Being immunocompromised means receiving any attenuated vaccine, one containing a weakened live virus that invokes an immune response, is potentially life threatening. The varicella vaccine against chickenpox is one such "live" vaccine. For my daughter, the disease and its preventative can be deadly.
That's why the ongoing U.S. outbreak of measles, a disease more contagious and devastating than chickenpox, is so frightening. While my daughter did receive one dose of the measles vaccine a year before her diagnosis, she never received the necessary second dose -- normally required right before entering elementary or middle school -- because that shot also contains a weakened live virus. According to recent statistics from the state Department of Health, that makes her one of just 218 children in Connecticut to receive such a medical "exemption" from otherwise required vaccines.
My daughter's health therefore depends not only on her own good health practices such as taking her meds, eating healthy and regular hand washing, but also upon those of others -- the most important these days being people staying up-to-date on their vaccinations. "Herd immunity," the phenomenon of the mass of vaccinated people being able to prevent the start and spread of disease among others, helps protect my girl every day from one disease most people rarely worry about and another most know can be deadly. Is herd immunity foolproof protection for her? Of course not. If she comes in contact with a person carrying the measles or chickenpox virus, she is obviously vulnerable. However, as more people receive the vaccines, the odds lower that she'll be exposed to a carrier.
Thousands upon thousands of children in the United States with immunocompromised conditions, including those undergoing chemotherapy for cancer, have a similar reliance on others. The parents of these children did not choose to opt out of a vaccination because of paranoia about Big Pharma or because some celebrity once claimed a shot caused her child to develop autism. In fact, these parents -- like my wife and I -- did not have even have the privilege of choice.
I empathize with anyone who may be worried about his or her child being that so-called "one in a million" who suffers a bad reaction or worse from a vaccine. After all, for 13 years, I've lived with the anomaly of my daughter's juvenile myositis being a condition medical science generally considers a "three in a million" occurrence among U.S. children. However, if I was offered the chance to protect my daughter and countless others from needlessly suffering by giving her an inexpensive injection that has already saved millions upon millions worldwide, I wouldn't hesitate for a second to take those odds.
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