Lately I’ve been working on an Afghanistan chapter for the next volume of Rotary and the Gift of a Polio-Free World. It’s sobering stuff. Afghanistan led the world in children paralyzed by polio last year, in part because of threats against workers who tried to deliver vaccine. Across the border in Pakistan, more than a hundred vaccinators and their guards have been murdered over the past five years. Immunizing children can be dangerous work.
The dangers are different in the United States. Measles infected more than a hundred people here in the past two months, mostly in places where a critical mass of parents fear vaccination. Measles vaccine can’t be given to those the vaccine most endangers: infants below age one, pregnant women, and people with compromised immune systems. Unprotected, they’re at high risk of infection in any public space where someone with measles coughed or sneezed in the last hour or two. They're safest in a community where the children around them are vaccinated.
For historical perspective, measles caused 450 to 500 deaths a year in the United States before the introduction of vaccine. Globally, measles and its complications still kill more than 100,000 people a year, mostly children below age five. Unwitting travelers—eighty-one of them in 2018 alone—bring the virus back to the United States.
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.