Sunday, 4 May 2014

Why I'm alive

My greatgrandmother’s two sisters died of diphtheria. She also had ten other siblings, which is how people survived in the old days. Diphtheria is eradicated in Poland. Not so in Russia and Ukraine, and with current political situation, perhaps we should be worried.

My parents were kids in Warsaw during the polio epidemics. Polio vaccination was a new thing, and not obligatory. My mom, a teacher’s daughter, was vaccinated, while her friend was not. I knew him only briefly. He used a wheelchair, and barely moved his hands.

My youngest brother was born in the ’90s. When he was a few months old, epidemics swept through our school, I caught it all, and spread it further. Chicken pox, he had only a few spots. But the rubella… let’s say I’m glad he survived. He was promptly vaccinated with MMR the same year it was introduced in Warsaw. My cousin wasn’t. She got mumps-related meningitis and had to be kept in pharmacologically induced coma so her brain would not fry. Quite an ordeal for a 4 year old. Yes, these diseases are milder than diphtheria and polio, that’s why people started to work on vaccines after the big scares were contained. Still, complications happen.

What all these diseases have in common? Right now they are all preventable with vaccinations.

And it boggles my mind that some people refuse it.

As far as I remember, without modern medicine I would die two or three times, not even counting the diseases I did not catch due to vaccinations. Once from food poisoning, once from pneumonia and once scarlet fever - the last one I caught while working in a cancer center a few years ago, where every fashionable microbe in the city spreads across immunocompromised patients like wildfire. Myself, I am not immunocompromised, but I was born with below average immunity. I had multiple bronchitis as a kid, I catch mild infections that go on, etc. People like me easily become vectors if not vaccinated, so I take care to keep my flu and hepatitis shots up to date. I had chicken pox, mumps and rubella and I’m vaccinated for pretty much everything else. You consider that mild childhood diseases unless you have a cancer patient in the family, which happens more often than you think. And cancer patients simply die from these.

You can’t vaccinate against scarlet fever, which is why I stayed home and dutifully took antibiotics. They kicked in two or three days after I started taking them, which is the moment when many impatient parents resort to homeopathy or other placebo treatments. It’s not a magic bullet, they have to kill enough bacteria to work. And you have to take them as prescribed, because otherwise you select antibiotic-resistant bacteria in your body. And yes, then you have to recover for weeks, because while the disease ravages your body, the antibiotic kills your gut bacteria (for which I recommend taking your supplements, and also fermented foods popular in your culture). But you live. Unlike for example Jim Henson, who died from the very same infection that I had treated.

So, I am aware that I’m precisely that part of population that would fall prey to natural selection if left to the forces of nature. Because natural doesn’t always mean healthy. Hemlock is natural. Heritable and infectious diseases are natural. A family of thirteen kids, from three different mothers (two died in childbirth), and two of those kids die of diphtheria - this is natural.

Born into an anti-medicine family I would be already dead. With proper care I will perhaps live into my nineties, despite a non nature friendly organism that gets injuries when exercising, diarrhea when dieting and allergies when trying herbal medicaments. And proper care means eat well and exercise (moderately) - but above all prevent and treat diseases when they occur.

So I will continue to take the evil chemistry when I need it. Get flu shots every year, antibiotic for an occasional angina. I will not share the illusion of transforming myself into a perfect human being with wondrous diets and magical placebo treatments. But I’ll survive.

Sometimes, it is just good to be alive.

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