Last week, on her first day of summer vacation, my six year old daughter broke her elbow by falling off her scooter. We scooped her up and took her off to the pediatric urgent care where the experts took over. After an x-ray, a splint from fingers to armpit, and a big huge pink popsicle, we left. That first night there was lots of crying and lots of pain, but by morning, she was basically good to go. It’s amazing how kids will figure out how to do just about anything one-handed (including climbing up on counters in an attempt, I guess, to break the other arm).
We lucked out. Really, we did. No shots. No surgery. No hospitalization. And, while there might be some residual stiffness, for the most part my child will be back to normal — after these few weeks of minor annoyance at missing the swimming pool.
There are two kids on my mind this week that are not so lucky.
In Ontario, Canada, a six year old little boy was hospitalized recently in critical condition with tetanus. As a reminder, tetanus is a serious infection caused by the bacteria Clostridium tetani. This lovely little bug lives all around us: in soil, dust and manure. When somebody gets an open wound, usually through injury with a contaminated object (like a nail or garden tools), the bacteria enters the body. And then it wreaks havoc. Tetanus is also called “lockjaw” because it causes the infected person’s jaw muscles to tighten making it impossible for the person to open their mouth. But that is not all it does. In addition to causing potential seizures, fever and difficulty swallowing, the bacteria also causes muscles spasms throughout the body — sometimes so forceful that they can actually cause broken bones. Here’s a painting by Sir Charles Bell depicting a soldier dying of tetanus:
It is a terrible, terrible, thing to have happen to anyone. Let alone a 6 year old kid.
Very few people get tetanus anymore because most of us are vaccinated against us. Sadly, this little Canadian boy was unvaccinated. When he suffered a puncture wound from a nail to the bottom of his foot, the bacteria found a way in and he became critically ill. It now appears that he is improving and hopefully will recover. But if he had been properly vaccinated, none of this would have happened. One little shot early on (with a band-aid and a kiss) could have prevented this child from experiencing this kind of misery.
And over in Spain, another six-year old is in serious condition with diphtheria. There is a reason this disease was once called the “Strangling Angel of Children.” As the infection progresses, it causes a thick film to develop in the throat making it increasingly difficult to breathe. In 1921, before we began routinely vaccinating against diphtheria, the disease killed over 15,000 Americans. Some vocal people think these old diseases were not that bad but that is just idiocy. The death rate from this disease in kids under age 5 used to be near 20%. That is insane. If you were living in the early 20th century and your child fell ill with diphtheria, you knew there was a 20% chance they would die. Nowadays, though, we just don’t see this disease because of vaccines. In fact, between 2004 and 2008, there was not a single case of diphtheria in the U.S. (compare that to the 206,000 cases recorded in pre-vaccine 1921).
The boy in Spain, however, was not vaccinated. His parents were opposed to vaccines. They bought into the anti-vaccine misinformation and lies and their child is paying the price. And these parents, now, feel horrible. They are heartbroken. They feel misled by what anti-vaccine people told them. The child is being treated now with a very specific anti-toxin. He is lucky that the treatment was even available. Someone may think that if they don’t vaccinate, and the child gets ill, it will be ok because the doctors will just treat him and move on. But guess what? Because so many of these diseases have become rare due to vaccination, treatments may not be readily available. For the boy in Spain, they had to track down the anti-toxin from a source in Russia and have it flown to Spain. Can you imagine? Your child is potentially dying in a hospital room and you can do nothing but wait and hope that somewhere, someone, still has a treatment for this disease. I feel terrible for these parents and I fervently hope their son recovers.
If I sound like a broken record, there is a reason. Vaccines prevent disease. They prevent suffering and pain and save lives. Listen, a broken elbow is bad enough. You don’t want to watch your child suffer from something truly serious and potentially deadly.