We forget this.
I am of the generation of school children who received polio vaccinations one by one in the school nurse’s office. Our generation had family members and neighbors and people we knew who got polio; seeing kids with leg braces and corrective orthotics was not all that uncommon.
We forget this.
My own children have been very healthy. They have benefitted from the very best of Western medicine and technology. And, because the vast majority of our society was similarly protected by an impressive infrastructure which regulated safety and health standards from fluoridated city water to fire-resistant pajamas, we have lived a long time in a predominately stable environment.
But, we forget this, too.
It’s not that we don’t have issues. Cancer devastates, and plaques and neurofibrillary tangles high-jack mental acuity and fill nursing homes with vacant faces; lost lives still among the living. We are struggling with a virulent array of aggressive addictions and sexually-transmitted diseases which corrupt virtually every aspect of American life; everyone knows someone who has been hurt or families who have been decimated by these.
But what happens when a marginal infrastructure is toppled virtually over-night? When the matrix of social stability is just too fragile, too impoverished, too compromised to prevent absolute catastrophe?
Benjamin Peel, much to the terror of his young wife Nancy Turnbull, bravely attended to afflicted fellow passengers without thought for his own safety. Thirteen adults and fifteen children died in short order. Mercifully for many, death came within only two hours from the onset of illness. It is part of our cherished family lore that Benjamin and Nancy Peel were miraculously spared.
But then Haiti had an earthquake. The world family focused attention on her plight. Funding, specialists, relief workers and supplies have been invested in a broken place crushed by too many cultural failures long before a natural disaster took center stage. Officials watched anxiously for signs of contagion - a dreaded accompaniment to large scale refugee communal living. A Hurricane dumped further trouble on a miserable situation.
Then, reportedly, sewage from a Nepalese base contaminated the Artibonite River. Nepal is a part of the world where cholera is endemic. Haiti’s National Public Health Laboratory identified the cholera strain now ravaging Haiti as the same type typically found in South Asia. Sweden’s ambassador to Haiti fueled suspicions when he asserted his “diplomatic sources” traced the deadly cholera infection to Nepal. Violence erupted as a result.
How incongruous that U.N. peacekeepers may be the carriers that introduced this paralyzing plague! The waste management company responsible for draining the Nepalese septic tanks has also been accused in the disaster. It is an epidemic. With more than 220 cases a day in just one camp, rising to over 300 - 400 new cases a day, beds needed for cholera victims must increase from 1,900 to 3,000 in the next few days.
In a place that has never seen Cholera before, people are stoning officials who come to collect the bodies of the dead. Families abandon their dead on the streets, too terrified to touch them.
An additional factor in our changing public health is the growing number of individuals who believe immunizations are not safe. Research has been very thorough in this regard, and so far aberrant side-effects (of significance) from routine immunizations are so incredibly rare, the numbers simply do not justify this aversion. Celebrities are very successful promoters, and Jenny McCarthy is prominent in the campaign to link immunizations to childhood Autism, for example. The fact remains, however, there is no viable science to her claims. Add this element of vulnerable population vs immunized population now compromised (most of our baby-boomer generation immunizations are expired; we should have a booster dose), and third world country microbial/viral ravages literally have an open door into our American “bubble”.
I am no biologist, and I am no germ-freak, either. All I know is we are a very forgetful society. The rising faction of those who revile against fluoride in city water sources as a toxic assault on the populace have forgotten that only two generations ago, it was accepted as the norm to lose all your teeth before you were 50. Public fluoridation put this appalling standard to a screeching halt. If something as simple as adding fluoride to drinking water has elevated public health so dramatically, yet is so thoroughly forgotten, what's next?
We turn on a tap with confidence. We drink out of any public water fountain without a second thought. We order food at restaurants and shop at warehouse-sized grocery stores, and hardly consider what contagion could lurk in our meal prepared by strangers. We shake hands, hug, touch common surfaces, and breathe common airspace - as we should! This is how Life is conducted.
But all that could change. Any number of instigators could turn our world upside down. It doesn't have to take a long, dysfunctional, suffering history such as Haiti's for it to be here, either. I wonder, how secure is our matrix?
More especially, I wonder if I could have done what my Great Great Grandfather did? I hope so.