As Thanksgiving approaches, the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the calculus of what families might be thankful for this year. Those of us lucky enough to remain healthy and employed can focus on those two facts during this year’s feasts. But for many, it’s easy to feel there is little to be thankful for this year, given all that continues to be infected, affected or simply canceled — including many of those traditional feasts. In other words, cultivating a grateful mindset during this traditional season of thanks requires many us to dig deeper this year. For me, digging deep into the history of today’s pediatric vaccines helps illuminate paths to gratitude.
The lack of a cure for the coronavirus has been humbling. It reminds us that even though modern medicine has achieved amazing feats, it is not able to solve all mysteries. Despite the pandemic, however, parents can feel thankful we live in this era by remembering how much child mortality has been impacted over the past few centuries by modern science — especially by global vaccines.
Pediatric vaccines vastly improve child mortality rates
In The Importance of Being Little, researcher Erika Christakis spells out the astounding numbers: “Child survival is one of humanity’s surprisingly recent success stories. Historically, many people didn’t experience something called childhood because … they were already dead. Today, in the industrialized world, mortality of children under age 5 hovers around five per 1,000. By contrast, in nineteenth-century Sweden, one third of young children died before age 5; in Germany, the child mortality rate was 500 per 1,000 children. And early childhood mortality among modern hunter-gatherers is 100 times more than in the United States today.”
Granted, additional factors like higher safety standards and better sanitation practices helped pediatric vaccines achieve such improvements. But Christakis stresses “we need to wrap our heads around this: the crushing of child death in the developed world over the last one hundred years is something truly radical and unique in the history of our species.” In short, “the victory over childhood mortality … has not only changed childhood but even, fundamentally, enabled it.”
Thanks for a children’s book about chickenpox
I experienced the world-changing nature of pediatric vaccines while reading a bedtime story to my younger daughter when she was little. One of her favorite books was Itchy, Itchy Chicken Pox, written by Grace Maccarone and illustrated by Betsy Lewin. Originally published in 1992, the story features a little boy who wriggles around in his pajamas due to red spots all over his body: “Under my shirt. Under my socks. Itchy, itchy chicken pox.” My daughter’s favorite line was “itchy, itchy, I feel twitchy,” which always amused my wife and me because at that age my daughter mispronounced the “tw” sound as a “b” sound.
In the story, the boy gradually recovers from chickenpox on his own: “I rest. I read. I eat. I play. I feel better every day.” Usually, my daughter would just finish the book after that page, but one day she asked if I had chickenpox when I was a child. After I said “yes,” she asked if she and her sister would ever get it. “No,” I said, “because you were both vaccinated against it when you were babies.”
That’s when it hit me. As I tried to explain “vaccine” to my daughter in an age-appropriate way, I realized that because my daughters were born in the 2000s, they had benefited from the chickenpox vaccine, which became widely available in the late 1990s. Hence, the plot of Maccarone’s children’s book, published a few years before the vaccine became available, had in some ways become obsolete.
In that moment, I felt intense gratitude for all those shots my daughters received at the pediatrician’s office when they were babies. By extension, I was thankful for all the immunizations I had received when I was a child.
The race for COVID-19 vaccines will no doubt contain false starts, research detours and distribution challenges. But because vaccines have helped eradicate diseases and lengthen life expectancy in our era, we can all be thankful for the hope that medical research provides. May the coronavirus one day become associated with just another shot for babies alongside those for measles, diphtheria, and yes, chickenpox.