No, Vaccine Preventable Diseases were not a Walk in the Park

Mike remembers his experiences with vaccine preventable diseases very, very vividly, and not favorably. His earliest memories were from mumps. He was only three, but he remembers being very, very ill. He was not hospitalized, but he was so ill that he had to lie on the couch for several days. His memories are vague – he was both young and sick – but he remembers being miserable. He also remembers one scene clearly: “my little sister was jealous of all the attention I was getting and came and smacked me across the face. When you got mumps, that’s a big ouch. She was two. She was toddling, and she just walked over to me and give me a swipe. It was not fun.”

Mike’s memories from having measles – at the age of five or six – are just as miserable. He says: “I remember being very very ill. Anyone who says the measles is not serious just had never had it. I was in bed in a dark room. My mother was bathing my eyes with milk. I was very, very ill with it.”It was somewhat later when he and his siblings – at that point there were four of them altogether – had chickenpox. Again, he remember it as “terrible” – very, very powerful urge to itch. And “when we couldn’t stop picking the spots we were told not to pick them or we would be scarred for life, but children, we scratched every itch.” They were treated with Calamine lotion – pink and soothing.

Mike also remember, at the age of six or seven – he is not sure – something that was originally thought to be meningitis, but may have been something else. He describes what happened: “I went on a bus trip to a local seaside resort, and we got there and I was too ill to get off the bus. I sat on the bus with my grandmother, and we sat there all day until it was time for the bus to go back home, and the next day I was in an isolation hospital. We have these hospitals which were part of the National Health Service, they were built separately and apart from all the other hospitals and when children got infectious diseases for which there was no cure they went there. They were originally built as sanatoria for TB victims or isolation hospitals for smallpox or cholera in the Victorian era. They were taken over by the NHS in 1948 and most were closed or repurposed over the next 50 year as these and other infectious diseases declined. And I was there and I remember tubercular injections, I’m not sure what it was, it might have been penicillin or something, regular injections every four or six hours. I vividly remember the doctor coming in to say I was going home tomorrow, and then the nurse came after him to give me my injection and I said ‘no, no more injections, I’m going home tomorrow.’ My poor little bottom was like a pin cushion.” Mike doubts it was meningitis, because he says: “I doubt if I had meningitis after sitting on a bus for a day if I’d be here to tell the tale.”

Mike says, “One disease remained a real fear when I was a child in the 1950s. Polio. We all knew about iron lungs and had seen children in callipers.”

Mike remember his childhood as a time when “children did get ill, they got ill on a regular basis, and not everybody did survive. I think I was one of the lucky ones.”

He does remember getting some vaccines – the pertussis, diphtheria, and tetanus vaccine, and the vaccine against Tuberculosis. He says: “I remember lining up to get it and everyone that came out pretended it really, really, really hurt to make the rest of us feel really scared. It hurt a little bit but when you came out you pretended it really, really hurt as well. Walking past this pale, frightened line of children moaning and staggering.” There were also smallpox and polio. “We liked the polio vaccine.” Says Mike. “It came on a sugar lump not a needle!”

Powerfully aware of the potential suffering caused by preventable diseases, Mike views the anti-vaccine movement as stemming, in part, from lack of knowledge about the risk those parents are taking. He says: “One of the problems I have with it is that the people who are campaigning against the vaccines have no experience with the diseases themselves. Unless, that is, those people who remember Measles, Mumps and Chickenpox as minor childhood ailments are remembering them in comparison to the really deadly diseases like smallpox, diphtheria and polio that were conquered by vaccination during the 50s and 60s.”

He himself knows better.

“When I became a parent and had my own children, it felt so good that I could take them to the doctor and have them vaccinated against these diseases and know they weren’t going to get them.”


The Aftermath of Phil’s Mumps

Today, Phil is a successful software engineer, father and husband, remarkably articulate and smart. It wasn’t smooth sailing getting there, though.

In 1964, Phil was 8, in third grade. He thinks he got the mumps from school: at that time, pre vaccine, it was going around. He had a “fairly standard course of mumps, with the swelling and so on. And then several days into that I was feeling better and was in my PJs on the floor playing with whatever it was I was playing with at the time, and I heard a ringing in my left ear and then nothing.” He could no longer hear in that ear. “And then shortly thereafter I started feeling very dizzy and the vertigo started. What happened was the world started spinning counter-clock-wise around an axis somewhere up and to the left. And it took my brain about a week to sort out and the vertigo to subside.”
Phil’s family were members of an early HMO, and the head of pediatrics there examined him and confirmed that he had encephalitis as a complication of mumps and that the “encephalitis severely damaged the auditory and vestibular nerves on my left side. There was deafness on the one side.” The vestibular nerve does a number of things, but most importantly for this story, helps maintain balance.
All his life, Phil lived with the after-effects. The encephalitis “pretty much knocked out the vestibular nerve. Many years later as an adult my intern heard the story and he made me a bet he knew he could win: he said ‘I bet you can’t walk a straight line with your eyes closed.’ And of course he was right, because I have learned to use vision to compensate for the loss of the vestibular function. Sometime it’s a little comical. When my son was young he loved vestibular stimulation. And there is a theme park up in New Hampshire geared towards little kids and they had this lovely antique gravity driven roller-coaster.  As roller coasters go, it’s very gentle, designed for little kids and their parents. I took my son on it once; he loved it, but I was white-knuckled and ready to heave everything in my stomach because I couldn’t deal with the motion of the roller coaster car.”
What was left of his vestibular function collapsed during final exams week in the spring quarter of his sophomore year in college. “What happened was I got this series of vertigo attacks and ultimately it landed me in the university’s teaching hospital. And they did a work up and pretty much concluded that it was the last gasp of the vestibular nerve on the left side. They followed me from then until I graduated, and when I graduated they gave me a referral to somebody at Mass. Eye and Ear. When I got to Mass. Eye and Ear this particular provider was no longer there and they had me see somebody else who apparently did not get a good grade in Bedside Manner 101, because when he was examining me the first thing he said to me was, ‘by all rights this should have been bilateral’.”

“The other thing that was damaged of course was my hearing. When they did neurological testing back after I recovered from the mumps encephalitis I had some bone conduction because it was my right ear picking up sound transmitted through my skull but nothing from my left ear. And so the other sort of comical thing is, if you make me try and rely on directionality of sound – I’m completely lost. If you hide in the bushes and call my name I’m going to have to use vision — I’m going to have to turn in a 360 degree circle looking for signs of motion visually.” Games like Marco Polo were not for Phil.

Phil considers himself lucky, on many levels. He points out that the encephalitis could have been much worse: “I think I was very lucky, given that I’d contracted mumps encephalitis. There was a child two years younger than me in my elementary school who died of chicken pox encephalitis.” And “if this guy that had flunked Bedside Manner 101 had been right, I would be deaf. Fortunately I have the hearing on my right side.”
He says: “The other thing I was lucky about – I gather mumps can result in sterility. But I am the proud father of two wonderful grown children. “
No, he does not think any of the childhood diseases are benign. “There was no measles vaccine, so I had measles. I think that’s when I hit my record for body temperature, I ran 105° (Fahrenheit) fever for a little while, so that wasn’t particularly fun. I hope I don’t get shingles because I had varicella. Might as well mention rubella too. Rubella was part of the picture too – I know a woman my age who is on the autism spectrum, but her autism had a known cause: her mother contracted rubella when she was pregnant with her.  She was a rubella baby.”
Lucky as he was, he’d rather not have had the disease to start with. “Needless to say that is something I would rather have not happen. This is one of the reasons I think the whole anti-vax movement is particularly irksome. I think it’s crazy to let these childhood diseases take their natural course.

Acknowledgements: I am very grateful to Phil for sharing his story and helping with the draft and to Alice Warning Wasney for comments on the draft.