Earlier this week, Slate published an essay from an English woman named Amy Parker who wasn't immunized as a child—and she says she went on to develop measles, mumps, rubella, a type of viral meningitis, scarlatina, whooping cough, yearly tonsillitis, and chickenpox because of it.
"My mother would have put most of my current 'crunchy' friends to shame," writes Parker. "She didn't drink, she didn't smoke, she didn't do drugs, and we certainly weren't allowed to watch whatever we wanted on telly or wear plastic shoes or any of that stuff. She lived alternative health. And you know what? I'm glad she gave us such a great diet. I'm glad that she cared about us in that way. But it just didn't stop me getting childhood illnesses."
It makes sense that the writer got many of these diseases since they were more common in previous decades. Measles, for example, wasn't eliminated in the U.S. until 2000 (although it's worth noting that Parker lives in the U.K.).
And while many of the diseases from which the writer suffered are now rare in this country, that doesn't mean that children who aren't immunized today are totally, well, immune. Yes, the odds are less likely that young people will contract them (it's the concept of something called herd immunity at work; the more people who are immunized against a given disease, the less prevalent the condition will be and the less likely anyonewill get it—even those who aren't immunized). Still, many of the diseases we've pretty much eliminated in the U.S. are still an issue in other countries.
Consider these stats on measles from the CDC: Sixty people contract measles each year in the U.S., on average, but there were 159 cases reported between January and August of 2013. "About 26 percent of these people got measles in other countries," reads the CDC report. "They brought the disease to the United States and spread it to others. This caused eight measles outbreaks in various U.S. communities, including the largest U.S. measles outbreak since 1996." Similarly, there have been a few notable mumps outbreaks in recent years, even though the condition is thought of as an arcane disease.
"I think this woman's story is just a perfect example of how these diseases are ruthless," says Keri Peterson, M.D., a physician at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City and a medical advisor for Women's Health. "If you aren't vaccinated, no matter how healthy a lifestyle you have, it's not going to protect you from these serious, serious illnesses. … So many people think, 'It won't happen to my kid,' but it can happen to anyone—any child is susceptible."
Of course any vaccine comes with potential risks, but Parker's account—and others like it—are part of the reason why Peterson is a vocal advocate of vaccines for anyone who's not allergic to the components they contain.
"By not [getting your child immunized], you make not only them susceptible—you also create a health risk for the general population at large," she says.