The scar near my shoulder

The other day I watched a talk given by Larry Brilliant at TED.  The talk is from back in 2006 in which he talks about preventing future epidemics and then also talks about smallpox and how he helped rid India of smallpox, working there in the early 70s.  When he showed pictures of people with the smallpox blisters, it triggered a memory...

While Larry was helping WHO fight smallpox, I was in first grade in India and our entire school was vaccinated against smallpox in one day.  The doctor set up his station in a long corridor and we all queued up, rolling up our sleeves and getting vaccinated on the upper forearm near the shoulder.  I have always been afraid of needles and was physically trying to bolt from the queue.  My teacher, Shashi Dhamija, intercepted me and showed me a similar picture of someone suffering from smallpox and convinced me that getting vaccinated is not such a bad idea.  As a result, I too have the scar (an irregular circle)  that I had seen on the upper arms of my parents, my aunts and uncles and my cousins.  Not quite a merit badge, it is a reminder that we have been enlisted as soldiers in the fight against smallpox.

The other day I was listening to NPR (National Public Radio) and there was a lengthy article about children in USA who are not getting immunized against measles, mumps, chickenpox and the rest. And these are not children of poor parents who either cannot afford the vaccinations or do not grasp the utility of such vaccinations. These are children of well-educated, well-off people who think that vaccines are either dangerous and cause various diseases/illnesses/syndromes such as autism or that these diseases are caused by the vaccines themselves!

I felt angry at these parents because I feel that they are risking their children's health, both short- and long-term, and they are also risking the health of the population in general (by diluting the herd immunity). I am not saying that vaccines do not carry risks or errors are not made or that certain vaccines are losing their potency. But thinking that vaccines simply do not work and it is all a conspiracy perpetuated by a vast cabal of doctors, researchers and vaccine makers is, well, asinine.

It took an army of doctors, nurses and social workers to go door to door all over the globe, educating people regarding the benefits of vaccination and immunizing people and teaching them about the symptoms to eradicate smallpox.  It was a momentous feat - tackling a disease that used to kill millions and corralling the last remnants of the virus to a few freezers in a handful of labs.  With the right vaccines and the right infrastructure, we can reduce many diseases to the same fate as smallpox, locked in a freezer.  But it requires volunteers - to join the ranks of the immunized - which seem to be in short supply these days.  And to add insult to injury, it is not just the ill-educated who are shirking.  Please, get the word out.  Go out and get vaccinated!

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