This week would have been my mother’s 101st birthday. She died in January, 2010 at the age of 99. My mother-in-law died six weeks later at the age of 95. I have written about them before on this blog.
It would take a dozen posts to cover all the changes these women saw in their lives, but the past few weeks of the silly season have brought some national attention to vaccines and my attention to the role of illness and vaccination in the lives of my mother and my mother-in-law.
One of my mother’s earliest memories was of the 1918 flu. This worldwide pandemic killed 75,000,000 people. Philadelphia, where my mother lived, was an epicenter of the flu with 300 people dying in a single day. My mother was an 8 year old child, but she remembers the bodies being taken away as in this account by a survivor, Louise Apuchase:
”We were the only family saved from the influenza. The rest of the neighbors all were sick. Now I remember so well, very well, directly across the street from us, a boy about 7, 8 years old died and they used to just pick you up and wrap you up in a sheet and put you in a patrol wagon. So the mother and father screaming. Let me get a macaroni box. Before, macaroni, any kind of pasta used to come in these wooden boxes about this long and that high, that 20 lbs. of macaroni fitted in the box. Please, please, let me put him in the macaroni box. Let me put him in the box. Don’t take him away like that. And that was it. My mother had given birth to my youngest sister at the time and then, thank God, you know, we survived. But they were taking people out left and right. And the undertaker would pile them up and put them in the patrol wagons and take them away.”
Sprague Washington, where my mother-in-law was a child of 4 was also hit by the flu, as told in this article from the Lincoln County Citizen.
“Whereas, the spread of Spanish influenza in Lincoln County has created an emergency, and it appears to the County Board of Health that it is necessary to establish a quarantine coextensive with the limits of the county, it is therefore ordered: 1. That all schools, churches and theatres shall be closed, and that no public meetings or gatherings of any nature shall be held. 2. That no private meetings, parties, dances or any other social gatherings shall be held in any private house or elsewhere; that there shall be no visiting between families. 3. That persons shall not loiter about any place of business, or in any post office or other public place. 4. That children of different families shall not play together or congregate, and children shall not be on the street except when upon some necessary errand. 5. That all pool and billiard rooms, both front and back rooms, shall be closed; Provided, that pool room proprietors may sell their merchandise from an open door to persons on the street who shall not be admitted to the inside. These regulations shall take effect immediately and shall remain in full force and effect until such time as they may be vacated or modified by order of this Board. Any person violating these regulations is guilty of a misdemeanor, and will be prosecuted therefore. Done in open session this 3rd day of December, 1918. Board of Health of Lincoln County, Washington. By J. E. Furgeson, Geo N. Lowe, F. A. Hudkins, Dr C. S. Bumgarner.”
The advent of modern medicine has not eliminated the flu, but it has greatly reduced the sweep of epidemics and the number of deaths. In this country improved sanitation, better and more widely available medical services, and, yes, the flu shot have changed both the incidence and the fear of this awful disease.
Two more diseases affected my mother as a young wife. In the interest of brevity I’ll only touch on these. Just before my mother was to be married my father came down with the mumps. This was a serious disease in adults and could lead to sterility. Obviously, my father survived both the disease and the threat of sterility. There were 100,000 or more cases of mumps each year in the 1930’s; now, thanks to an effective vaccine there are fewer than 800.
When I was just a few weeks old my brother developed scarlet fever. Our house was quarantined. My father needed to work and lived with my grandmother who would leave food for my mother the front door. A sign like this one was slapped on the front door and only the doctor went in or out. As a parent now myself I can imagine her fear, alone in the house with a newborn and a five year old with a deadly disease. Widespread use of antibiotics to control strep throat has greatly reduced the occurrence of scarlet fever. I am so grateful that my children never had to face mumps, scarlet fever, or the other deadly diseases that were regular occurrences in my childhood.
The disease that was the true terror of a parent’s life in the 1950’s was polio. Many, many families experienced polio and everyone knew someone who had survived it. In my case it was a cousin who survived, but walked with heavy leg braces for the rest of her life. This was a contagious disease that primarily struck children. It usually arrived in the summer, making our parents particularly vigilant during our school vacations. We wanted to play with our fiends and especially to go to the local pool, but during a polio epidemic the pool was off limits, widely believed to be a “polio pit”. Survivors of polio were left with varying degrees of disability. In its most extreme form the muscles that control breathing were affected. This required the use of an “iron lung” to assist breathing. For some only a few weeks were required, but some people spent the rest of their lives in these contraptions. I believe the last of these unfortunate folks died around 1970.
I was about 8 years old when the news of Jonas Salk’s discovery of an effective vaccine for this horrible contagion hit the papers and the radio. Both my husband and I remember standing in long lines at the local school waiting to be vaccinated. Our parents were jubilant. There was no complaining about waiting; there was only joy that their children would never have to deal with this horror.
I try to keep politics out of this blog. I love our strong national discourse even when it gets a little nutty. I believe it is what keeps my country strong.
Common sense and the ability to do rudimentary arithmetic will tell you that parents with children of vaccinating age are considerably younger than I . I know that there are those with questions about vaccine safety. Having to make decisions for little people who depend on you is a fact of parenthood. I do not presume to make those decisions for anyone, but I do think that this is a case where family history can be useful to young parents. Before you make a decision not to vaccinate find someone who was born before 1957 and ask about contagious disease or a least look at that picture of people in the iron lungs.