When I joined the Peace Corps a million years ago, I had just graduated from Forestry college and I went with a group of 16 other foresters to Honduras.
We were pretty tough. We all had logging boots and some chewed tobacco.
We were up for any adventure that Honduras could throw at us: snakes, tarantulas, intestinal amoebas.
There was only one aspect that terrified many of us — vaccinations. Not the medicine, the needles! We got vaccinated for tetanus, typhoid, yellow fever, TB, hepatitis, etc. etc.
Every week during training, the nurse would come into our Spanish classes looking for arms to jab. One guy in my class hated them so much that he would literally hide, whether it was out the window, under the table or in the closet.
It didn’t work, she always found him. But he kept trying to escape anyway.
The results of all that poking was that none of us got those dread diseases, although they were all prevalent in the small pueblos where we lived for two years.
Vaccinations have a long history in this country and an even longer tradition in Africa and China.
Supposedly (according to recent Facebook posts, so it must be true, right?) some African slaves introduced the concept to colonial America during a small pox outbreak.
Since then, vaccinations have saved countless lives, at least in the highly developed countries where they are widely available.
In developing countries, the situation is much different. Many vaccines require refrigeration during transport from the city to the rural areas which is not always possible to arrange.
In large swaths of those countries, people remain without any opportunity to get vaccinated. And it makes a huge difference to their health.
For example, worldwide, approximately 38,000 unvaccinated people die from tetanus every year. In the U.S.A., usually 7-10. From measles, 200,000 die annually in other countries; 0 in the U.S.A.
In 1988, almost 40 years after it had been eradicated in the US, there were 350,000 cases of polio in other countries. After vaccination programs started, that number dramatically reduced to about 400 cases in 2013. Which is still too many.
If we talk about rabies, we can thank pet vaccination programs as well as an effective after-bite treatment for the fact that we have only about 1-2 human deaths per year in the U.S.A. Worldwide, 56,000 people die from rabies annually.
There is a persistent belief that childhood vaccinations somehow cause autism, but that idea has been debunked many, many times.
Approximately 1 in 88 children in the U.S.A. will develop autism and it will be evident by about one to three years of age, although it is often not diagnosed until the child starts school.
Since this is the same time kids are getting their first vaccinations, some people tried to make a connection. But vaccinated children and unvaccinated children have the same percentage of autism. The only difference? The unvaccinated children, especially if they travel out of the country, will be in danger of getting sick from all those preventable diseases.
In many of the developing countries where I have lived, couples have large families. Sometimes I have asked my friends about it. I have gently mentioned family planning, but they just shrug and say something like, “Children are our wealth. But when so many die young, we have to have 12 children if we want six to survive.”
I guess that is wise family planning in the unvaccinated world. But that’s not where we live. We can do better.
We take our health for granted here. We see the medical miracle of vaccinations as something we can accept or reject with impunity.
With our current vaccination outlook, I recently read that as many as 30% of adults say they will not get the COVID vaccine because they are afraid of it.
Afraid of a vaccine that will protect them from a pandemic that has already killed millions of people!
It is true that the vaccines have been developed at breakneck speed compared to any other vaccine, ever. And some of them are a new design, using our RNA (not to be confused with DNA) to trick our bodies into creating antibodies against COVID.
But by now, millions of people have received the vaccine without any side effects. According to an article in USA Today, although some people have become infected after getting both doses of the vaccination, nobody, not one person, has been seriously ill or died from COVID after being vaccinated, and that is true for any brand of vaccine.
That is good enough for me! As the T-shirt says: If you eat hot dogs and drink soda, why do you worry about what the vaccine contains? I do, so I won’t.
The vast majority of Americans are vaccinated against preventable diseases like polio and tetanus, which means that the anti-vax folks can get by without getting sick.
Our herd immunity is protecting them. But if we end up with 30% of American adults and most children unvaccinated for COVID, we will never eradicate or even control it because the virus will be able to get a foothold in the unvaccinated people and mutate before we can stop it.
We need everyone to get the jab before we will be safe.
Think of getting the vaccine as our patriotic duty. It might not be pleasant, or even something that you personally believe in, but do it for the team!
If we want independence from our living rooms again, vaccinations are the path to freedom! So, when your chance comes for the COVID vaccine, get it!
Stop hiding under the table and roll up your sleeve. It won’t hurt … much.
Kathryn Hunter is from McMinn County and holds a bachelor’s degree in Forest Resource Management from the University of Idaho and a Master of Forestry from Yale University. She has worked with the USDA Forest Service locally as well as living and working in natural resource management and protected area conservation in eight foreign countries.