I have just performed one of the most responsible acts of citizenship available to me in the modern world. It wasn’t voting, or writing to the City Hall or installing solar panels, and it was way easier than starting a compost heap. I got up to date with my vaccinations.
As a committed fan of not getting nasty diseases, I have received lots of vaccinations throughout my life, so I am covered for most things. There was a big humdinger of a question mark about the mumps though. I come from a family who think that disease should be ignored and that most things can be cured with a brisk walk and a good night’s sleep. As a result, no-one could remember if I’d ever had it.
Added to that, I have recently acquired a gig working in communications for a large international immunisation campaign. That makes coming down with a preventable infection an embarrassing prospect.
You’re probably thinking, as I used to, that in a nice northern European country like Denmark we don’t need to worry about that kind of thing. Think again. It’s actually some of the richest countries of the EU that have the worst outbreaks of diseases like measles. Now that we don’t experience our kids dying of diphtheria, being paralysed by polio or brain damaged by congenital rubella syndrome, the vaccines that rescued us from that desperately sad situation have slipped down the list of priorities.
Basically, what we’re aiming for in public health is a thing called “herd immunity”, which you achieve when at least 95 percent of your population is immune. When the herd is immune, even if one infectious person is doing the rounds coughing, spitting and never washing their hands, it won’t matter because there’s practically no-one to infect.
If the herd is not immune, highly contagious diseases like measles wash through the population, finding and infecting unimmunised groups and individuals like rainwater finding cracks in paving stones. Some of those affected will suffer from really nasty complications, which are all the more tragic because they are so easily avoidable.
As our ways of getting information about our health choices have changed, controversies have seen the light of day that might not previously have received quite such an airing. The MMR/autism scandal has been definitively refuted, but still rears its head, simply because mud sticks. At risk of shooting myself in the foot, getting your health info from newspapers is a bad idea. Trust me on this one, I’m a journalist.
Still, an anti-vaccine lobby lurks online, and a small number of worried parents, feeling pressured from all sides, delay or refuse vaccination. Their children then grow up vulnerable to a whole range of nasty diseases with complications that range from incontinence to infertility to death.
Relying on dwindling herd immunity (also known as Russian roulette), they believe they’re acting in the best interests of their kid, not thinking about the risk that kid poses to others who cannot be immunised because they are too young or have other health problems.
Sometimes it’s not intentional, it’s just all too easy to just lose track. Just like me and my mumps. And if you have moved countries with a kid recently, it’s well worth checking you didn’t mess up the vaccination schedule in the process.
Our practice nurse beamed with enthusiasm when I asked her to vaccinate me: I probably looked like an easy prospect compared to her usual clients who are mostly under five and prone to kicking and biting.
“Just a little prick,” she said. And that little prick got me not only immunity to measles, mumps, rubella, but hepatitis was thrown in for luck. Alas, as a grown-up patient I didn’t get a lollypop or a Disney princess sticker, but I’m pleased to report I didn’t even get a sore arm either.