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Immunizations: My personal story

Immunizations: My personal story

At the age of 76 it is fascinating for me to reflect on immunizations at a personal level, as my own journey passed through the modern era of immunization:

1. I was born in 1938, an era before routine childhood immunizations were available. When I was 6 months old I got a severe case of pertussis. This also predates antibiotics. Boy am I old. All that could be done was supportive care. All that was advised was for my parents to take me to the beach, where the moist sea air would moderate the disease. Hence my parents camped on the beach at Santa Monica California for weeks, while I slowly healed.

2. Ethiopia.

I was on a 1.5 year leave of absence from Stanford medical school on an international child health fellowship. As part of my duties I did a good deal of surgery, helping the only surgeon on staff. Hard to believe, but the Ethiopian government gave me a full license to practice medicine. I learned intubation and tracheotomy for the many children who arrived in extreme respiratory distress, due to diphtheria, and to destructive laryngeal diseases. I did more than 20 of these operations as well as simple procedures like appendicectomies.

For the tracheotomies, I would normally have to intubate the child and then scrub out and then scrub back in to complete the operation. There were no trained anesthesiologists on site. There were anesthesia nurses but they did not do small children. Absent immunizations, the many cases of diphtheria were a particular challenge, especially as cardiac failure due to cardiomyopathy was part of the picture.

3. Montreal Citizens Committee.

1968-69 Pre-Medicare. Together with several medical students and physicians we helped establish a store-front clinic in East-End Montreal. There was no measles immunization available yet in Quebec as the francophone Institute Armand-Frappier were working on their own Quebec vaccine rather than accept the newly developed measles vaccine that was in use in English Canada. Strange to tell, the US manufacturer of the measles vaccine was the Dow Chemical Company, manufacturer of napalm that was being used in Vietnam to defoliate villages.

We needed a measles vaccine fast as measles was rampant, and many children were being seriously damaged. Swallowing hard, I wrote to Dow Chemical and “on humanitarian grounds”, received a large number of doses of the vaccine. We mounted a major measles vaccine campaign, stopped the epidemic and embarrassed the Montreal city government, which was a planned side effect of our efforts.

Big picture: All this was happening at a time when anti public health attitudes had convinced Mayor Drapeau to keep vitamin D out of the milk in Montreal, resulting in many cases of infantile rickets with seizures every winter in Montreal. Drapeau felt adding vitamin D was a plot to poison the French population. When vitamin D was added all this disappeared.

Final Thoughts

When I think of these stories and how immunizations issues seemed to be following me, I have a hard time listening to the stories of the vaccine deniers. They remind me of the climate change deniers. On CBC this week, I heard a typical story of one of the latter. She was saying how she had done her “research” and concluded that vaccines were dangerous. 

Her research amounted to chatting with other vaccine deniers and citing various junk science promoters, such as the long discredited autism story.

Typical was the statement that she was sorry that her choosing not to immunize her children exposed other children to serious illness, but that was unfortunate. She and others make the claim that using naturopathic methods she could “prevent” or “treat” these preventable illnesses.

I remain amazed that the deniers dismiss the hard data showing that the incidence of brain injury from vaccines is on the order of 1:300,000 vs rates of similar injury from measles itself is on the order of 1:2500. Yet these folks have done what they call research and are prepared to harm the public and deny the common good. I wonder if I ought to do something further with these stories?

Michael C. Klein, CCFP, FAAP (Neonatal-Perinatal)

Last modified: 
Oct 26, 2017