Shot in mom’s arm is reminder of what we’ve taken for granted

Photo of vaccination by Fiona Goodall/Getty Images.

It’s easy to forget what vaccines have given us as a society. We’ve forgotten the stories of babies struggling for each breath, not for hours or days, but for weeks due to whooping cough. We’ve largely forgotten the sudden deaths from diphtheria, and panicked summers with children kept indoors for months due to polio epidemics.

The paradox of vaccines is that they make forgetting easy.

Like many others worried about susceptible relatives and friends during the pandemic, I was overjoyed when my mother, a New Yorker in her seventies, received her first dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine. In many ways, it felt as though she had received a lifesaving organ that would ensure I could spend many years to come with her.

Yet, as I reflected on my joy, I was overcome by a singular realization. Despite my strong support for vaccines, I had never, over the past six years since my own child was born, taken a moment to reflect on the gift of vaccines themselves.

If we can put together the pieces of these two moments, it would be a COVID-19 silver lining.

As a health policy professor, I know the history of vaccines and their value, of course. A framed photo of Jonas Salk hangs in my office. But the tearful emotional reaction I had after learning that the first shot was safely in Mom’s arm made me realize that I have missed the bigger picture — and I suspect I’m not alone.

I hadn’t connected the last twelve months of news about vaccine development, debates, hopes, and frustrations to the incredibly successful schedule of childhood immunizations that most American kids receive. The development of these vaccines was also a triumph of its day, and yet each slowly slipped into the background of our lives as we took them for granted. As those who remember Polio tell us, you don’t want to know what Polio was like.

A lot happens when we bring our kids in for their well visits, and it often happens so fast we can miss the value of its components if don’t pay deliberate attention. Yet, that moment is actually the culmination of a long process — from the science that developed the vaccine, to the regulatory framework that ensured its safety and efficacy, to the distribution networks that get it to the exam room. But in a doctor’s office, it’s all over in a flash.

But here we are, with our hopes for the end of this horrendous pandemic placed in the very technology that we take for granted at well children checkups. We’ve watched the COVID-19 vaccines develop in real time. We’ve debated efficacy, logistics, side effects, and even refrigeration. But let us not let the larger historical perspective get lost.

It remains to be seen whether our current real-time experience watching what a vaccine can do for a society will convince skeptics to get the COVID-19 vaccine. But we should use the lessons learned from pandemic to counteract the dangerous pre-pandemic game that too many Americans have been playing by refusing, delaying, or spreading misinformation about vaccines. Anti-vaxxers, after all, can spread their inaccurate messages precisely because vaccines have wiped from our collective memories the horror of watching a baby with pertussis struggle for each breath.

Americans should harness the joy they feel as they, their family members, and their friends receive their COVID-19 vaccinations. Let us work to ensure that this newfound appreciation for preventive health care becomes a mainstay of our communities, and that the present public health moment, comprised of millions of personal experiences, is leveraged to its fullest extent. With more than 500,000 Americans dead from COVID-19, and many more looking at long-term, debilitating effects of the disease, getting vaccinated at the earliest possible moment is one way to ensure that the pain and suffering was not in vain.

When this is over, we should continue to celebrate every vaccination with the same tearful appreciation we all feel when our loved ones get their COVID-19 shots–and their lives back.

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