Intersections – The Pox(Left) face of a man suffering from smallpox; (right) vaccination against smallpox. This file comes from Wellcome Images, a website operated by Wellcome Trust, a global charitable foundation based in the United Kingdom. Obtained via Wikimedia Commons
By Nicki Salcedo
A boy who lived down the street from us had the chicken pox three times. I know this with certainty because we were in the same grade. I knew him all three times he was sick. Even as I think back on it, it sounds like an urban legend. No one had the chicken pox twice. No one had it three times, and that third time was in high school. He was a special case.
Without studying epidemiology or infectious disease, I knew this kid was an outlier. He was not like us. I don’t recall him being sickly in any other way. Chicken pox was his thing.
I had chicken pox once. That was enough. I was about four years old, so I mostly remember the stories told to me. My sisters had chicken pox first, and I didn’t get sick with them. My immune system held out for almost a year.
“I have the chivers,” I told my mom. I was roasting with a fever and could not properly describe my chills and shivers. But my mom knew. She’d seen it before.
She put socks on my hands to prevent the scratching. I was small and nimble and itchy. I found ways to scratch. One of the two scars on my face came from the chicken pox. I had to get the itchy bumps off me. I was willing to hurt myself in an attempt to find relief.
If you’ve had the pox or the measles then you know that moment of insanity when the itchy feeling is in your brain. I do remember that.
Thankfully, I survived with only a few marks to show for it.
Until I had kids, I did not realize that there had been advances in childhood immunizations. I was excited to hear about the chicken pox vaccine. I knew I wanted to spare my kids being sick. I also knew that vaccines were not fool proof. I remembered that kid from my neighborhood. Anyone can be an outlier.
I shop at a local health food store regularly. Once when I was noticeably pregnant, a customer accosted me.
“You shouldn’t vaccinate your baby,” the lady said. “It’s dangerous. Toxic. Your kids will develop autism,” she said. She was ruining my normally happy experience.
Never stand between a pregnant lady and the cooked beets on the hot bar.
I smiled. “Chances are good that my children will need to go to school one day. And I don’t want them to die.”
This was eleven years ago just a mile away from the CDC. I had no idea there was an anti-vaccination movement beginning just at the time I was starting to have kids.
The lady backed away from me and the beets. She had no response for, “I don’t want my kids to die.” I’ve only had to use that response a couple of times since.
If you’ve ever had chicken pox, you don’t want your child to have chicken pox. If you’re like me, until recently, I never knew a single person who had the measles. Not one. I’m 40. The measles and polio and small pox were diseases of the past.
I’m okay with my kids not having the chicken pox. I remember the South Park episode about chicken pox. My mom was disappointed that I didn’t get the chicken pox at the same time as my sisters. Exposure was the first vaccine.
I have chicken pox scars on my face. I read Albert Camus’s The Plague. In college, I wrote a wonderful paper on the bubonic epidemic. The Walking Dead is currently my favorite TV show. Things that are contagious fascinate me in history books and in fiction. Not in the news.
I don’t expect science to be perfect. There is no exact remedy for cancer or pneumonia or even the measles. Science improves our chances. I’m willing to take a risk for the reduction in risk.
It’s the reason I periodically exercise. I’m not trying to wear a bikini or live longer. I want to live better and reduce my risks of becoming sick in preventable ways. Preventable. Living better doesn’t mean you won’t die. We are all going to die. I’ll be a little pissed off if it’s the measles that kills me.
Nicki Salcedo is a Decatur resident and Atlanta native. She is a novelist, blogger, and a working mom. Her column, Intersections, runs every Wednesday morning.