When I was about 6, my sister contracted the measles. Looking back now, I am sure it was terrifying for my parents. She was very ill with a high temperature, masses of red spots and the danger of blindness and death. She was quarantined at my grandmother’s and on bedrest for two weeks. She told me later that seeing herself in the mirror was horrifying.
On Feb. 18, Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft and donator of more than $28 billion dollars for health care initiatives, spoke to the Munich Security Conference regarding the threat this world faces from disease and the potential for an epidemic of global proportions. These discussions are frightening and people feel helpless. So…what can we do?
We have multiple tools that can help us to combat pathogens. These include: good handwashing, staying home if sick and avoiding sneezing and coughing on others. The other powerful tool that we have is immunization.
Immunizations prevent diseases in most of those who live in the civilized world. A stellar example of the power of immunizations is the World Health Organization’s success in eradicating smallpox.
This disease is very contagious and was once a deadly threat. Patients usually died, and if not, were left severely scarred. Additional examples of diseases that are rarely seen now because of immunizations are measles, polio, mumps, diphtheria, pertussis (whooping cough) and tetanus.
As a child, I knew children who died of these diseases. The fear was very real. I can remember immunizations beginning to be available and was glad to get them.
There is fear of immunizations in our country, and thus, the number of immunized persons has decreased. The Centers for Disease Control recommends immunization of 95 percent of the population for each disease to protect those few that are unable to tolerate immunizations. This gives our population what is called herd immunity. Without this immunization percentage, diseases can once again gain a foothold.
We have fallen behind that percent, and there are increasing numbers of outbreaks of measles, mumps and pertussis.
The flu is a particularly contentious subject. I have heard people say, “I would rather have the flu than get that immunization because it makes me feel sick.” I must point out that while one might infrequently feel sick after a flu shot, one can die of the flu.
During the epidemic of 1918, as many as 4,000 people a day were dying in Philadelphia. Last year 2,744 people got the flu in Wyoming. Calculated over the last 10 years in the USA, the average yearly number of deaths from the flu is 33,000 people, and an additional quarter-million people are hospitalized due to the flu. This level of disease is above the percentage required to meet the criteria for an epidemic.
As mentioned earlier in this piece, those activities that we have heard about since we were children are very effective ways to combat illness.
Let us pay attention to Bill Gates’ warning. Taking charge of your health through these steps is the best way to effectively deal with the threat of epidemics and the fear that that threat engenders.
Judy McDowell is a member of the Sheridan College nursing faculty.