When I was a young man filling in medical forms I would write “Usual childhood diseases”. It meant, in my case, measles, whooping cough, diphtheria, chicken pox and probably a couple more that no one has bothered about, like influenza. Everyone wrote “Usual childhood diseases” in their forms and no one would enquire further. It could include mumps, German measles, pneumonia, tuberculosis, scarlet fever, infantile paralysis.
That last, infantile paralysis, polio, really scared me. As a child I saw the film ‘The Magnet’ which showed a boy my age in an iron lung, condemned there, as I thought, for life. And we all knew someone who had had it, who walked with calipers or dragged a useless arm about.
But we were the survivors, we who wrote “Usual childhood diseases”. These diseases are seldom fatal, but in a population of millions, thousands died. All we had to put up with was weeks off school, weeks filled with delirium of fever, of pain, of weakness, of itching, of confinement.
Then it changed. I got the Salk vaccine when I was about eleven and I was free of the specter of the iron lung, then TB when I was twelve. When I was thirteen all the girls in my class were immunized against German measles. We all knew why, we had been taught it in Primary School; if a woman caught German measles while pregnant, there was a good chance the baby would be born blind or deaf or both. We knew there were schools for such children, crowded schools, and we knew where those schools were. It wasn’t some hypothetical threat, something we had read in books, it was part of our geography. Then this first rubella vaccine came out and that specter was lifted from us.
These days all these “Usual childhood diseases” are no longer usual. Effective vaccines against them all are available and comprehensive immunization programs have made them rare and unusual. They are rare enough that each case can be investigated and traced to its source. Rare enough that they can be treated in hospital. Before, when every child suffered from these diseases, ten times the hospitals wouldn’t be enough and you lived or died at home.
But the anti-vax crowd, people like Meryl Dorey and her Australian Vaccination Network, are saying that because the immunization is successful, it is no longer necessary. They want to return to the days of “Usual childhood diseases”, days that, for the most part, they have never seen themselves. They must not succeed.