At first it was a cold – runny nose, swollen glands and red eyes. I was 27, living in Moscow, working for the American Embassy. I remember walking in a park, hearing the crunch of snow, feeling woozy, a babushka scolding me for not wearing a hat. I stumbled back to my apartment, head now throbbing. I rode the shaky elevator to the fifth floor and fell into bed.
The next morning was worse. A co-worker who lived in the building visited. When she put her hand on my forehead, her smile straightened to a tight line. She found the thermometer. 104 degrees.
She took me to the American Embassy sick bay. The doctor was out but an alert nurse said, “Hospital.” It was 1988, and Soviet hospitals were not places to seek diagnosis, let alone treatment. I heard the nurse and my friend making calls, first in Russian, then in English, finally, French. I was desperate for sleep.
I couldn’t get on a plane for a medevac to Finland because I couldn’t walk onto the plane. They wrapped me in towels and blankets and rushed me to the French Embassy to see a doctor.
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I had an adult case of measles. When my temperature crept toward 105 degrees, they slid me into a cold bath.
How could I get this childhood disease? I’d been vaccinated.
That’s when I learned, too late, that the Centers for Disease Control recommended two doses of measles vaccine for adults who are international travelers. The illness was life-threatening and my recovery was slow. For about two weeks, profoundly fatigued, I couldn’t do much but scrape at a lingering rash. I also noticed that I couldn’t hear as well. Subsequent tests found deafness in my left ear. If I hadn’t had help, I might have died. As it was, I was left with a permanent hearing loss.
Now, our local schools are obligated by Education Code to accept unvaccinated students whose parents claim vaccine exemptions because of “personal belief.” We have a relatively low kindergarten exemption rate in Sacramento City Unified Schools (1.4 percent), and our district is vigilant. For kindergartners, the vaccination rate is about 90 percent.
Much has been written about the herd immunity concept. We vaccinate to keep our children safe and to protect those who cannot get vaccinated. The small but vocal group that wrongly linked vaccinations with autism has contributed to a noted outbreak in California.
Anti-vaccine hysteria has about it the characteristics of urban myth: It’s scary and it’s false, and now unvaccinated kids are at greater risk. While the number of unvaccinated children is not high, it’s just enough to be a tipping point, to spread the disease to the unvaccinated. So if you’re under 12 months old, undergoing cancer treatment or are HIV positive, you are at greater risk because you cannot get the vaccine.
Anti-vacciners base their behavior on “belief.” They believe the discredited notion that the vaccine causes autism. They have a right to be wrong. They have a right to their belief. But they should not have a right to impose its probable consequences on our school population.
Parents who opt out of the measles vaccine could also opt out of a host of other life-saving vaccines that immunize for smallpox, mumps, diphtheria, scarlet fever, chickenpox, even polio – a disease that crippled a president and terrified parents for decades.
I agree with state Sen. Richard Pan, who is a pediatrician, and Sen. Ben Allen, who proposed that California join the 32 states that do not have school exemptions. We must not allow these eradicated plagues to rise again.
A lot of people who had measles in childhood have forgotten the particulars, and children who have it now may not be able to fully express its effects. But, as someone who has suffered adult measles, I can tell you that it’s debilitating, dangerous and requires weeks for recovery. My experience should be rare. It will become much more common if parents don’t have their kids vaccinated.
Ellen Cochrane is a Sacramento City School Board of Education trustee and a public school teacher.