Learning from the Past: Gae’s Story

I am a sixty-nine year old Australian, which means that I benefited from a totally free childhood immunization program.  I started school in 1949 and was convinced that it was somehow normal for every school to have at least one, and sometimes more than one, child wearing calipers as a result of polio. And those were only the children who had survived and recovered well enough to be in the normal school system.

I have clear memories of my parents telling me of the fear and of the precautions that their parents took whenever there were reports of diphtheria in their communities. I remember, too, a corresponding fear my parents had every summer, because that was polio season.  As soon as the Salk vaccine was available, we were vaccinated. In 1955, at the age of eleven, I had a mild bout of whooping cough (pertussis), having been semi-protected by infant and childhood vaccination.  If that was a mild bout, I shudder to imagine the Real McCoy.

The real trouble is that the fear factor is fading. I cannot emphasize enough that my grandparents and parents, and their contemporaries, felt genuine fear at the thought of these diseases. In those days no responsible parent would neglect immunization, except on qualified medical advice (and that after a lot of thought and discussion with the family doctor and probably a specialist).

Measles can cause severe damage, it can even destroy a child’s brain; Whooping cough can kill infants; rubella in pregnancy—we all know about that, don’t we?  Diphtheria had a very high death rate—just check out a Pioneers Cemetery someday. Polio should simply no longer exist, but I can remember the damage it used to do.

So vaccinate, vaccinate, vaccinate, unless your doctor or pediatrician recommends, for sound medical reasons, that you either postpone or avoid vaccination for a particular child—in which case, you have to hope that every child and adult your compromised child comes in contact with has been vaccinated, because herd immunity will be your child’s lifeline.

Editor’s Note: Gae tells VFV that while smallpox vaccine was available in 1949, it was not considered a routine immunization in Australia, unless one was traveling overseas. Another interesting fact she shared was that her maternal grandmother died in 1919 in the second “wave” of what was the 1918 flu epidemic (often referred to as the Spanish Flu). She was pregnant with her seventh child when she died.