19 March, 2015

VIRUSES, VACCINES AND WHY HAVING CHILDHOOD MEASLES COULD BOOST IMMUNITY


A few months ago, my boss, a young Australian woman with a very cool approach towards life, showed up at work and said: “I hope none of you are pregnant.” We all looked at her enquiringly. “If so, you should know that my two year old daughter has just been diagnosed with chicken-pox.” Apparently pregnant women should stay away from chicken-pox patients.

Later, when she was dropping me off in her car, I asked her why she hadn’t vaccinated the child. She said she’d been about to, but the child got the disease before she could get her shots. Then she said: “You know, I was talking to a friend of mine, and she said: getting this disease is like getting rid of bad karma. Its not a bad thing—it cleanses the body of bad toxins.” I nodded. It appeared, on a metaphysical level, to make sense.

I have a document of my immunization record. In it, I see my parents gave me my shots: the MMR, the DPT, and the BCG shots. I also got the polio vaccine.

Despite this, however, I came down with measles as a child. In boarding school in Kurseong, Darjeeling, cooped with lots of other children in unhygienic conditions, I contracted not just measles, but also twice got the chickenpox. Which meant the MMR shot I received as a child was basically useless.

It wasn’t the most pleasant time of my life—I was up on a hilltop in a small hospital in a small town in Darjeeling, looking longingly at the family of the hospital administrator who sat down every day with her husband and children to have their evening meals, while we were shut up in the next room with meagre rations and not much else, in a scenario rather sadly reminiscent of Jane Eyre. The good thing about these long, unending months of hospitalization, however, was the fact that I seem, in adulthood, to have better resistance towards disease. Now I don’t want to make that a scientific hypothesis without actually doing a large scale clinical study—but a casual head count of my friends tells me that those who were sick as children appeared to have better resistance not just towards physical viruses, but also in their approach towards being healed.

Disease in modern societies generates a lot of fear—primarily because disease, I think, also eats up precious time which could be used productively to make money, destabilizing financial stability. In societies where finance and relationships are intimately tied, it also destabilizes relationships in workplace, marriage and with peers. Disease takes us away from life moments which we engage together with peers. Because of the linear nature of modern life, a few months lost can have a major difference in school, leading to failure to pass that grade or class, or to get that job in time.

Those who faced disease as children, however, understand the nature of the body’s resilience, and are able to mitigate their psychological response when the next bout of illness hits. Whereas those who never faced a disease like measles or chickenpox often carry a larger amount of subconscious fear of what may befall them, in case they get ill. And this psychological fear, I would argue, is more toxic than any virus that can infect your body with a mild illness that can hit a child for a month or so.

I’m not advocating that the MMR shot should stop. There is absolutely no reason for people to get sick if there’s already a vaccine in the market that can stop them from getting a common, preventable childhood illness that spreads infectiously. What I am observing, rather, is that there may have been a reason for the body, biologically, to get these illnesses in childhood. While not life-threatening (at least in the present day, when people have access to lots of antibiotics and other medications to handle the side effects of measles and chicken pox), these diseases give the body a chance to fight off a minor disease—and in that process, the body may “learn” about the body’s own defense mechanism as well as the process of healing. Healing is long, slow and requires patience. The body also learns, in the process of these childhood diseases, that healing is a natural process and that the body has enormous capacity to correct imbalances.

Parents should give children the MMR shot, since its available. If a common childhood illness can be prevented with this shot, which parent wouldn’t give it? But in case the shot doesn’t work as its intended to, there may be a biological reason for it. In other words, these childhood diseases may be a rite of passage to understanding the body’s biological defense mechanisms, and for the young human to learn about how the body heals itself during and after illness.

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