Wednesday, May 14, 2014


Administering polio vaccine.

From the New York Times  May 2014, severely abridged:

Alarmed by the spread of polio to several fragile countries, the World Health Organization declared a global health emergency on Monday for only the second time since regulations permitting it to do so were adopted in 2007.
Just two years ago — after a 25-year campaign that vaccinated billions of children — the paralyzing virus was near eradication; now health officials say that goal could evaporate if swift action is not taken.

Israel has had no confirmed human cases of the disease, but a Pakistan strain of the virus has been detected in sewage in Tel Aviv and elsewhere.
Polio, short for poliomyletis, is a highly contagious virus spread in feces; although only one case in 200 causes symptoms, the hardest-hit victims can be paralyzed or killed. With so many silent carriers, even one confirmed case is considered a serious outbreak. There is no cure.
Unlike influenza or other winter viruses, polio thrives in hot weather. Cases start rising in the summer and often explode when the monsoon rains break the summer heat, flooding sewage-choked gutters and bathing the feet of romping children with virus, which they pick up by touching their feet or a ball and then putting a finger in a mouth.
Though the disease primarily strikes children, evidence has mounted that it also crosses borders in adult carriers, such as traders, smugglers and migrant workers.
With 54 of this year’s 68 new infections, Pakistan is by far the riskiest country, Dr. Aylward said. Polio has never been eliminated there, Taliban factions have forbidden vaccinations in North Waziristan for years, and those elsewhere have murdered vaccine teams.

This post is not really about polio.  It's about HIV-AIDS, but since people's heads slam shut when there is direct statistical and medical talk about the latter, I'll sneak up on it.  There are similarities.

1930's lunch pail
The vintage lunchbox (circa Thirties) above is an image I found online.   I have a lunch box just like it, which I've owned since I started first grade in 1945.  The original belonged to Emily Ann, a little girl I never knew, whose parents lived next door.  They were the Hanisches, Bob and Vashti.  Emily Ann died of polio in the back bedroom Bob Hanisch built off the kitchen so Vashti could nurse her at home without going up and down the stairs.

At one time in their history they had lived on a river boat, which was now in rot-dock in their backyard.  They couldn't quite give it up, so the raccoons and possums lived there.

Because of losing Emily Ann and because I was the first child born on the block for a long time (1939), Vashti in particular took a special interest in me.  Their house was quite different from ours, darker, with old-fashioned furniture and a gas grill in the fireplace.   A row of diminishing ivory elephants marched along the mantel.   There were no books.

Vashti and me.

I was an obstinate, opinionated child and my mother sometimes found me maddening.  Once my brother was born, it was worse.  To keep from murdering me, she locked me in the basement where I sat with my back against the other side of the door and howled, screamed, bellowed, and roared.  Vashti came over quietly with some excuse -- maybe something from their very large garden -- and said to my mother,  "Why don't I take Mary for the afternoon?"  And she did.  My mother was grateful.  (This is quite different from my friend's house, where he was beaten half to death by his father and must have been heard screaming, but no one went over to say,  "Hey, man!  There's got to be a better way."  Was it because he was male?)

Since 1960 polio has had an effective vaccine, drops of liquid, painless -- not a shot.  In the Fifties on the Blackfeet Reservation polio had been epidemic and in the Sixties I taught students who still dragged one leg.  In those days many died and some spent years in iron lungs, which was the only way to keep them breathing.  An iron lung looked like a water heater with your head sticking out.  People were afraid to get out of their cars on the rez.  Even the president, FDR himself, had polio.  Now it has been assumed that polio is defeated, or at least under control, but NOT.  The technical side of disease is much easier than the socio-political side: the rumors, the money, the logistics, and always the stigma.  Fecally-transmitted diseases always bring in the shit images.  War destroys sanitation infrastructure, but they say refugee camps make it easier to administer vaccine.

Remarkably kids could smile.

It was a pandemic.  There weren't enough machines.

No one was cleaner than Vashti Hanisch.  Her house was always "ship-shape" and she knew ships.  No one knew how Emily Ann had caught polio.  Maxine Brewer, my classmate who lived down the street, caught tetanus by stepping on a nail.  Her father didn't believe in shots so he dosed her with whiskey and she died in an iron lung.  What is the use of modern medicine and sanitation when the people resist it so much?  It's the cost, the embarrassment, the fantasies about what people will think -- always the effort to make authorities stop thinking.  Often successful efforts.

So we make an end run.  You don't really care if priests sexually molest children?  If it's a willing child sacrifice to a sacred class of people?  Well, what if we say it's torture?  Isn't it torture for your mom to make you be a choir boy or altar boy when "boy" means you're a human sacrifice? Does it matter that something other than a knife is plunged into your body?  Not invisible emotional twisting (the fear), but "real" physical abuse, splitting, tearing and bruising?   This is the new powerful redefinition that will test the Catholic Church again.  

Here's another new angle:  the priests themselves have quadruple rates of HIV infection and many are now developing full-blown AIDS, which means hundreds of old dying priests whom the Church will either have to abandon or care for.  It will mean a LOT of money, and money is the way to get the church's attention, the same as it has finally dawned on the legal system that the high proportion of IV drug users arrested in the war on drugs, sentenced according to Procrustean guidelines which meant aging in prison, must now be cared for with expensive means and procedures.  Or dumped onto the streets for public health to cope with.  Both ways the necessary money will get the attention of voters.

So those who are shut out of the conversation, sitting on the wrong side of the door, howling and screaming, might be figuring out how to attract the quiet Vashtis who come to protect and discuss.

Vashti's chest
When Vashti died, Bob Hanisch gave my mother this chest.  My mother kept it in the dining room for table linens.  When my mother died, I acquired the chest.  I keep it in the bedroom.  It's not just a physical bit of furniture, but also a reminder.  Now you know of what.

I'm sending Emily Ann's lunch bucket to my niece along with this story.  Eventually she will have the chest as well.  She is an animal scientist who does not deny medical protocols.  Her two happy, healthy preschoolers are named Griffon and Tristan.    


northern nick said...

Wow! No metaphor here.

Anonymous said...

It's rather interesting that the Taliban and our own anti-vaxxer movement both are opposed to immunizations. Strange bedfellows.