Sunday, January 23, 2011


My father’s family comes from Paulding County Ohio, a place I visit every time I’m in the vicinity – though it is not a landscape that merits much tourism.

Northwest Ohio is flat farmland – and I do mean flat. 
The Luce family barn
It’s comparable to the most table-top places in the world, though to me it feels very different than, say, the staked plains of Oklahoma. Out there (Oklahoma) one feels totally at the mercy of the sky, whereas in Paulding County there’s a sense of being connected to the earth. Which perhaps is why, when I visit, I find myself going to earth places: The farm where my father grew up; banks of a long-abandoned reservoir; arrow-straight irrigation ditches (AKA farm boys’ skate-ways) and of course the family cemetery.

Cemeteries can be useful places. They bring hygiene to society, yes, but more than that, they constitute a record. The Paulding cemetery is the place my memory gets refreshed. I relearn the names of cousins I’ve never met and the dates my grandparents passed away. I get to remember my Uncle Howard and draw mental pictures of him and my father plowing with draft horses. And I contemplate the aunts and uncles I would have known had childhood illnesses not claimed them.

Of my father’s six siblings, only three survived to adulthood. The others were all taken down before age six, each by an infectious disease we now know to be preventable.

Overall the Luce family didn’t fare so badly. Walk around any cemetery with dates comparable to my family’s (@ 1880 – 1950) and you’ll see dozens of headstones marked “Baby” and “Daughter” and “Son,” or with actual names and short life spans (“b. Nov. the 6th 1893 d Feb. the 23rd 1897 God Rest Her Soul”). Many of the family plots exhibit a much higher mortality rate than ours.

My father at his siblings' tombstones
Today it is almost unknown for a child to die of infectious disease. When a schoolboy succumbs to, say, meningitis, it is national news. Kids get sick and die, but the percentages are tiny, compared to the late 19th century. The primary reason is: vaccinations.

Over the past few weeks I’ve noticed that the internet fearmongers have been working themselves into a lather about vaccinations -  in the negative sense that is, attacking the practice of vaccination. I suspect the reasons are diverse: The British Medical society is about to publish a report that discredits a 1980’s study linking vaccinations to autism (the doctor who published it faked everything, so advance reports tell us). Also, with political right-wingers in ascendancy here in the ‘states, the medical conspiracy theorists find themselves empowered. (Let’s not forget that it was the John Birch Society that financed the anti-fluoridation campaigns of the 1960’s, which are closely linked to the anti-vaccine movement). Also, since every pharmacy here in the USA seems to be offering (or is it, pushing?) flu vaccine, the notion of forceful campaigning is in everybody’s face.

Those of us with long memories can recall the horrors that vaccinations now prevent. My childhood was peppered with images of iron lungs and kids with swollen necks; the iconography of polio and mumps. Our household suffered through chicken pox (my father lost 2 weeks of work because of it), scarlet fever (we were quarantined – another week of work lost), measles (thank goodness my mother wasn’t pregnant at the time), mumps, and the 1957 Avian flu, which I recall with special vividness since it gave me a fever of 105 and hallucinations I can still, with very little effort, relive.

Some time ago I mentioned in a class I was teaching the "common knowledge" that two great photographers who died of Parkinson’s disease – Margaret Bourke-White and Edward Weston – were poisoned by exposure to darkroom chemicals. After class an older student – he was a retired surgeon – came up and told me I was probably wrong. Both these individuals, he deduced, would have been young adults during the 1919 influenza epidemic, and people who were exposed to that flu had a high chance of developing Parkinson’s.

In other words, the long term effects of preventable diseases are likely to be as bad or worse than the long term effects of vaccines, if any.

There’s no doubt in my mind: vaccines save lives. I support them being required as a pre-requisite to full participation in society.

To suggest that public health would be better served by making vaccinations optional makes about as much sense as suggesting that highway safety would be better served by making stop signs optional.

Yes, there is a chance of serious repercussions from vaccination. Whenever a foreign entity is introduced to the body unexpected results can occur. But there’s little unexpected about the course of an illness like typhus or cholera, and fair certainty about the probability of infection if you’re unvaccinated and exposed.

As I contemplate the mysteries of biology, unanswerable truths gnaw. It’s a fact that celiac disease is more prevalent now than 60 years ago. It’s a fact that autism is on the rise. It’s a fact that our elderly are suffering a plague of Alzheimer’s. But jumping to conclusions about the reasons is dangerous business.

In the early years of AIDS, some people blamed the disease on a secret ingredient introduced into sex lubricants by government agents. These conspiracy theorists even had a name for the “toxic” component – Onga-Onga

I consider myself lucky to have survived measles, mumps, chickenpox and the rest, and to have been born at a time that vaccinations for smallpox, typhoid and diphtheria were routine. I happily get a flu shot every year, and pneumonia vaccine when it's due. If I could have vaccinated against celiac disease I’d have done that, and if I had children I’d unhesitatingly vaccinate them.

Wouldn’t we rather have family to hug, than names on granite headstones?


Suzanne said...

You say, "today it is almost unknown of a child to die of infectious disease..." I agree that vaccinations have greatly decreased the numbers, however, it is not unknown. My 10 year old son lost his life in January 2010 from meningococcal meningitis, just 17 hours after his first symptoms. He was a completely healthy and vibrant child until he woke up feeling ill. He was gone 17 hours later after being in the ER for 5 hours. Please visit the National Meningitis Association's website at to see many, many other stories of children who have lost their lives to infectious disease. We support vaccination against this horrific, deadly disease.

Charles Luce said...

Thank you Suzanne. I am so sorry for your loss. I cannot imagine what it must be like to lose a child, even though I have friends who've gone through the tragedy. Childhood death, while rare (that's the "almost" part) is still heart rending. I appreciate the effort it must have taken you to leave your comments.

Anonymous said...

First of all, there is no vaccine for Scarlet Fever, so vaccination had no effect on that disappearing. My grandmother and my dad's twin sister died of diphtheria and scarlet fever in Chicago in 1913. My dad was hospitalized. They likely did not have indoor plumbing and I wonder about running water. So you really cannot compare today with back then. You really cannot say that vaccines caused those diseases to disappear. If you look at the history of public health in Chicago, things that may have also contributed to longer life are pasteurized milk, meat inspection, plumbing, sewers, (for example, "1885 - A cholera and typhoid epidemic kills 90,000 Chicagoans when a heavy storm washes sewage into Lake Michigan, the city's source of drinking water."

My son lives daily with a potentially life threatening immune system malfunction called anaphylaxis that I believe was triggered by his infant/toddler vaccinations (20 doses by age 18 months, 5 in 1 vaccines). While I wish I could have known my grandmother and aunt I am not positive that vaccination would have saved them, and I have not been able to determine if they had in fact been vaccinated for diphtheria.

Charles Luce said...

Fair enough about scarlet fever, and I agree that all the measures you cite contributed to public health, and thus to the diminishment of infectious disease. In fact there are many illness which were prevalent during the late 19th century and that are non-existant today, and for which there is no vaccine. Malaria for example. It was the bane of early settlers in Paulding, Ohio. However the medical community does agree that vaccines had the largest impact on may diseases disappearing, including diptheria. Note this citation:
I'm sorry that your son suffers from anaphylaxis. It is my understanding that this is a symptom, however, not an illness per se. - ie: it is an acute and life-threatening reaction to an allergen. See: To what is he allergic, may I ask?

victoria said...

Do you know about Sister Kenny and her work with polio? I also highly recommend people watch the 1946 movie of her dramatized story, where Rosalind Russell plays the role of Sister Kenny.

Then, I recommend you watch the second video on this link, by Don Tolman, "The Medical Conspiracy".

victoria said...

I believe I forgot to include the Wikipedia link for Sister Kenny. :)

Charles Luce said...

Thanks for your comments. I didn't know about Sister Kenny - she was really an interesting character. I note that she died before the Salk/Sabin vaccine. I wonder what she would have said about it?

RE Don Tolman: I presume you added these for the humor. (?)