Vaccinated: A plain, old view

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I don’t remember getting my first vaccinations. I was a baby, and we traveled a lot, which meant that vaccinations were the norm and not the exception.

My partner Cheryl gets her first Covid-19 vaccine dose

I do remember asking my dad why he had a big, puckered scar on his upper arm whenever I’d see him in a tank top. He told dad jokes to explain it, as most men do. But eventually I learned it was caused by the skin’s natural healing process after recieving the smallpox vaccine.

Many years later, I met our family friends, Ed and Kay Morales, and it never crossed my mind to ask why Kay was in a wheelchair. I just remember admiring the fact that Ed would always dote on her. Lift her out of it when she needed to be on the couch or help her to stand when she wanted to cook something.

Finally someone told me Kay had polio as a child. This was difficult to process, because I didn’t know anyone with polio. It was old, something that had been eradicated a hundred years ago, right?

An nfant receiving smallpox vaccine in 1951

Wrong.

Jonas Salk first used an inactive polio vaccine in 1955, but it wasn’t really broadly available until a live attenuated oral vaccine was created in 1961.

Somewhere in my late twenties, somebody told me the flu shot was bad. That it contained all kinds of horrible poisons that were worse for your body than getting the flu. Besides, they said, you’re young, you have nothing to worry about.

I don’t know if it was the first part of that, the fear of putting poisons in my body, or if it was the second part, the knowledge that I’m young and strong, but I didn’t get a flu shot for many years.

It wasn’t complicated. I didn’t listen to a bunch of conspiracy theories, I just listened to a friend that I trusted, and the logic seemed to make sense to my young and fertile mind.

When we had babies, and some of those babies developed allergies to various things like eggs, vaccination re-entered my brain in the simplest of terms. I needed information so that I could continue down this path of life that has been so-well laid out for us. I work, my wife stays home with the babies, the babies grow up strong, they go to school, they go to college, they go to work.

That’s how it’s done.

When my oldest boy had an allergic reaction to his first hepatitus vaccine, the doctor told us not to give him a second shot, as it could possibly kill him.

Well, we both thought, that’s an easy decision.

Turns out the Anchorage school district wouldn’t accept kids who hadn’t been vaccinated and who were not up to date on their vaccines. Our oldest was missing his hepatitis vaccine, and therefore the school district would not let him attend school.

Well, this was messing with my plans for his life.

A well-meaning school district employee told my partner Cheryl that one way around this was to claim a religious excemption. Nevermind that we didn’t have a religious excemption to vaccines. But we filled one out anyway and were suddenly counted among the data that includes people who don’t get vaccines for religous reasons.

Life goes on.

We move to many different states, we grow olders, the kids grow up. Everyone’s alive, even though we’ve had a few scares along the way. Some kids are missing some vaccines, but there’s always that religious exemption and states that understand that some kids are allergic to the stuff that vaccines come in or to the vaccine itself.

We’re not anti-vaccination at all. When we moved back to the hometown we left many years ago, I, now forty-five years old, decided to check in with a doctor about all things health. He wanted me to update some old vaccines. So I did.

I still didn’t get a flu shot that year.

I had been a journalist working mostly on my own all day, before returning to the office to write out a story before deadline for most of my career up until this point. Now I was in an office for much of the day interracting with many other people.

Some of those people were sick.

I got sick.

I went to the doctor.

The next year my place of business offered flu shots administered downstairs from my office. Easy and simple. So I asked my doctor what the risks were if I hadn’t had a flu shot in something like 15 years.

My doctor told me that while you can miss a flu shot here and there, if you don’t get flu shots semi-regularly, you miss out on some of the variations of virus that show up any given year. This means you may have a higher chance of contracting that particular flu or suffering from whatever maladies that flu inflicts.

I got a flu shot that year and have ever since.

My partner hadn’t had a flu shot in years either. It wasn’t that she didn’t believe in them, it was just that she didn’t have time and didn’t feel it necessary. So I dragged her to the very next open vaccination clinic at my work.

The next year, our son came home from college. He had been taking medical classes and living in the relatively germ-infested world of roomates and a collegiate cross country career.

I only had to invite him down to my place of work for a free flu shot, and he jumped at the chance.

The very next year, our next-oldest boy decided to get the flu shot of his own accord. Family pressure? Maybe. But he’s a grocery store worker and has dealt with his share of get-in-your-face-mad customers.

As a journalist, I had read the long and sordid story of the anti-vaccination crowd and even had to cover an outbreak of measles in a north Chicago suburb brought on by, yes, a community of anti-vaxxers.

On a larger scale, I was familiar with efforts by billionaires with too much money to ever spend in their lifetime, to erradicate some diseases through vaccination. As in get rid of them forever, so that nobody would have to live their lives in a wheelchair like my friend Kay did.

All good stuff, I thought.

mRNA vaccine

Flash-forward to 2020, a world-wide pandemic rages. People are dying. The world wants a vaccine. Science achieves the seemingly impossible and creates not only a good vaccine, but perfects a new technology into a 90% + efficacy.

People are getting vaccinated barely a year into a pandemic that has kill millions worldwide.

A little more than a year after we went into lockdown and our lives changed forever, I’m sitting her with a sore arm, some chills, a small fever and a headache, writing this post.

The symptoms are the result of instructions that were placed in my arm that told my body’s immune system how to react to something that looks like the Covid19 virus. The reason I’m getting them now is that three weeks ago, I had a vaccination that placed a tiny bit of code that my immune system unwrapped. Today my body is responding to a second bit of code injected into my arm, and it’s amped and ready for battle.

If the thought of having code injected into your arm bothers you, you don’t really understand how your own body works. And that’s sad, frankly. But ignorance is a great way to keep a lot of people under control, so we keep downgrading our education system for the sake of individual freedom.

But that is another post. Let’s stick with vaccines.

American still has the highest infection rate in the world. We have a fraction of the population of India, but India ranks third.

Yesterday I stood in line with 3,600 other people in my hometown to get vaccinated. And yet in rural parts of the state people who vote a bit differently than me refuse to get vaccinated.

Why?

Because someone they respect told them that vaccines are bad, or they are a way to control you, or that some celebrity billionaire wants to track your movements or they’re full of poison, or they have a microchip that correlates to a biblical prophecy about a mark of the beast that will separate the good from the bad.

For whatever reason, this divide among the vaccinated and the unvaccinated follows political divides, but the ramifications will impact everybody in this country over the long run.

Covid19 will continue to run around the population for decades mutating and finding ways to not only exist but to thrive. And those of us who get flu shots every year will now add an additional vaccine.

And becauase we continue to grow as a species and to exploit the planet for our wants and needs, more novel coronaviruses or other dangerous diseases will spread from wildlife to an intermediate vector like pigs or chickens and eventually to humans.

And in the next two decades, it’s not inconcievable that we could be receiving many vaccines for different deadly viruses each year. Nevermind the lockdowns, the impact on the economy, the loss of ability to travel and not being able to see loved ones.

Scientists have been predicting this for year. I first read a prediction about this particular virus we’re dealing with now about ten years ago in a National Geographic article.

I laughed. Not out of pure ignorance, but out of the weirdness of it all.

To overcome all of this, it’s going to take overcoming our political animosity. It’s going to take worldwide cooperation. It’s going to take laying down some of our percieved rights. it’s going to take a strong belief in science, and not just a faith in it, but a real understanding of what science can and cannot do. Blind faith does not help, because it fails to recognize the limitations, and we therefore set our expectations too high.

And it’s going to take critical thinking not just about saving our own bacon but about what it means to occupy the space we do. It’s going to take humanity taking a hard look at itself and deciding, as no species has ever been able to do before, if it wants to save itself and the habitat it relies on.

We may be able to create vaccines in record time thanks to technology and very, very smart humans, but without making some changes, the advantage will shift away from us very quickly.

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