There are worse calls to get while several states separate a mama and her kids, but it still royally screws up a relaxing vacation away from the children when the voicemail begins, “This is the San Mateo County Department of Health calling…” My son had been exposed to the measles.
I had turned off the ringer while eating dinner with my husband at a hip New Orleans restaurant where we were allowed to finish our thoughts without interruptions for “more bread” or “are there refills at this place” and best of all, no one at our table needed crayons to make it through the meal. Much later, I noticed several missed calls and voicemails over a short period of time, causing my heart to race while I waited to hear the messages. Unfortunately, the health worker handling the case had already left work for the night when I received the message, but she gave me the basic facts – also in an email – that my son had been exposed the week prior, but the potential diagnosis (it wasn’t a confirmed case of measles for a few more days) had only come that afternoon. Suddenly there was a rush to inform those exposed to make sure precautions were taken.
With the time difference, I had to sit with this information for a long time before I could get more details. My son had the first round of the measles vaccination and he was due for the booster at his check up in June. While I knew that first vaccine was a big help in warding off the virus, I worried it wasn’t enough. The county email said a blood test may be necessary to gauge immunity, making me feel awful that my little guy would have to get his blood drawn while his parents were whopping it up on vacation. But worse than any of that, the thought that kept me awake for hours, was how many people my son had interacted with since his exposure. He may be fine, but was he possibly carrying the measles and passing it along to someone vulnerable? One of my best friends is pregnant and we’d spent a lot of time with her during that week. She was due any day and what if my son had passed this along to my friend’s four year old daughter, who could pass this along to the baby?
My anger grew by the minute. Who are these parents who didn’t vaccinate their child? And what gave them the right to put innocent lives at risk? Our lives intersect with so many others over the course of a day. Walking through a grocery store, going to school, stopping for coffee, piano lessons, and soccer practice; there are so many moments where we may feel alone and we may not speak to anyone, but that doesn’t mean we exist alone.
There was never a question about vaccinating our kids. Our world is much more nomadic, with people coming and going from different countries, increasing the possibility of exposure to different illnesses. My husband and I never had to consider vaccination to help protect those around my children with compromised immune systems, like the little boy in music class undergoing cancer treatment, because we already knew with confidence why vaccinations were crucial. We vaccinated to spare our children a horrible death.
My father lost his mother before his second birthday. She was a young mother of two boys when she contracted polio. She died one week later, at age 27, alone in a bedroom, unable to hold her babies or say goodbye to them because the fear of transmission was so great. She struggled for every last breath, while aware that she would be leaving her boys to grow up motherless. My father’s life would never be the same.
Unlike now, at the time there wasn’t a shot that could have prevented my grandmother’s death. My position may sound alarmist, but the fact is that children continue to die each year from preventable diseases. While there are people who are allergic or cannot tolerate vaccines for other health reasons, this isn’t the majority of cases of those opting out of vaccines. Maybe it’s fear caused by a concocted link to autism, maybe it’s fear of chemical companies or mercury (not present in children’s vaccines), but the decision not to vaccinate is a decision to gamble with your child’s health. Mostly it pays off, thanks to herd immunity, but there are times when it doesn’t. I don’t know the parents of the sick little boy at my son’s school, but I wonder if they have regrets. I can only imagine that if given the option of a shot with rare side effects but proven lifesaving capability or certain death from polio, my grandmother would have taken a shot without hesitation.
We vaccinated our children because it was in the best interest of their health, of our family, and of society, but each time they’ve had their scheduled shots, it was done in honor of my grandmother.
My son is fine. He had to go into the doctor’s office immediately the next morning to have his measles booster, which he took without a flinch and with his eyes on the prize: a sugar free lollipop, courtesy of our doctor. Thankfully for my son, the incident was nothing more than a minor annoyance at having to miss a morning of school, but for me, it was an issue of life and death.