Whilst reading the arguments and counter arguments, I often hear the suggestion that some of these childhood disease are “harmless”, such as in the recent book Melanie’s Marvellous Measles and in this passage from Jayne Donegan, the controversial GP and friend of Andrew Wakefield:
If you look carefully at children after they have been supportively nursed through an infectious disease, you will always see them do something new, depending upon their age and circumstances. An infant may produce a tooth; a toddler who kept banging into things will walk confidently; a six-year old who is not reading will suddenly start to read. It is rather like a snake that has to crack off the old skin before it can grow, children go through these crises of self cleaning before they can move on to the next step. I have often seen children with endless snot or lots of warts have both of these cleared by a healthy bout of chicken pox. Such infectious diseases do not improve the population, in the harsh Darwinian view of things, by killing off the weak and leaving only the strong ones to reproduce; they actually give each individual child the opportunity to strengthen their own individual immune system and make the best of what they have.
Whilst 16 weeks pregnant with my younger sister Jenny, my Mum caught chickenpox (I’d picked it up from a party and passed it on). Following Jenny’s birth it quickly became apparent to my parents that something wasn’t right. Over the next couple of years my parents spent countless hours in hospital waiting rooms and Jenny was subjected to test after test.
We now know that between 12 and 28 weeks of pregnancy there is a 1.4% chance that chickenpox in the mother would cause Fetal Variella Syndrome (FVS). That Jenny’s GP at the time was unaware of this and that Jenny’s problems took so long to be diagnosed caused much frustration and distress and are, perhaps, a separate issue.
The FVS had disrupted Jenny’s brain and eye development. She has large calcium deposits particularly in the left side of her brain. This has caused a myriad of issues, most notably a hemiplegia (basically cerebral palsy on one side of the body), severe learning difficulties, and she is has cortical blindness in her left eye and limited vision in her right.
Despite her problems she is basically a happy soul and her pure joy whilst dancing at a folk concert is a sight to behold. However, Jenny will never be an independent person, never get a job, or achieve the milestones that most of look forward to in our lives. She will never be able to make a decision for herself about her future.
The issues around deciding when, and where, vaccines are appropriate are complicated and I don’t write this as a call for any change to policy. Decisions in public health shouldn’t be made on the basis of testimonials, but I would strongly argue against dismissing these diseases as ‘harmless’ when they can, and do, cause death and severe disability. Complications from chickenpox are rare, deaths are thankfully even rarer, but for Jenny and my family the complication rate is 100%.