Why did childhood vaccines become controversial?

Published 4:48 pm Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Protecting children from illness and death has always been, as it should have been, a paramount concern of society.

The death of children was quite common prior to World War I. Few families escaped the tragedy of losing a child, either at birth or during their early years. They were subject to all manner of accidents, but most died as a result of a contagious disease.

From the 1920s forward, more and more vaccines became available for the most prevalent — and deadly — of those diseases. And people took them seriously. As a result of vaccines and a host of other health care advances, childhood deaths became blessedly rarer — by a lot.

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In 1900, 30% — nearly a third — of all deaths in the United States were of children through the age of 19. In 1999, the deaths of youths accounted for only 1.4% of the total. That’s an incredible improvement.

America’s medical professionals, including researchers, played a huge role in preventing childhood deaths, but they had help from the public. Childhood disease and death were understandably frightening, and people took it seriously, as did community leaders.

In researching an unrelated piece of history recently, I read a bunch of old Smithfield Times editions on the Virginia Chronicle website and one paper caught my eye. The Oct. 18, 1928, Times published two Page 1 stories promoting county vaccination efforts — one for the prevention of diphtheria and another to prevent typhoid.

Two weeks later, the paper carried a story written by the director of the Nansemond County Health Unit that provided detailed information for parents on how to prevent and/or cope with childhood illnesses.

This early public commitment to preventing childhood illness and death reinforces my confusion over the COVID vaccines. We’re told there are all kinds of reasons people are reluctant to get COVID shots. Some falsely believe the cure might be worse than the illness (it’s definitely not), others just don’t like the government even suggesting what they ought to do, and a small number of the most cynical seem to feel that a resurgence of COVID might help curb popularity of the Biden administration and thus help his opponents in next year’s midterm elections. As hard as it is to believe, that’s one of the more extreme reasons for all this.

I suspect that underlying this reluctance is something much less sinister but every bit as deadly — a general nonchalance toward childhood illness and death.

We’re convinced that children don’t die today, and the statistics mentioned earlier reinforce that belief. They’re durable. They get sick, they bounce back and life goes on.

Except that, with COVID, that’s not necessarily so. Children have died from this disease, but many more have experienced complications that can remain with them for years, if not their entire lives.

One of the most severe is Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome, which is an inflammation of body parts, including the heart, lungs, kidneys, brain, skin, eyes or gastrointestinal organs. From all I have read about it, you don’t want your child, grandchild or neighbor’s grandchild to experience it.

And yet, we are willing to roll the dice that things won’t be too bad if we don’t get vaccinated. Maybe our children won’t contract COVID and, if they do, maybe it won’t be so severe.

It’s that attitude that is killing people across the country.

Let’s be blunt about this. If we don’t give a damn about our own health, that’s fine, but don’t we care about the children? Can’t we suck it up and perform the very simple, unselfish task of getting vaccinated for the sake of those around us?

When you look at the numbers, you can’t help but believe that far too many people simply are not sufficiently concerned over what happens to their neighbors. It’s disheartening that only about 61% of Virginia’s adults have been vaccinated, and it’s jaw dropping that Isle of Wight lags significantly behind that at 56%.

Please, let’s get this done so we can move on. The children deserve it even if we don’t.


John Edwards is publisher emeritus of The Smithfield Times. His email address is j.branchedwards@gmail.com.