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Complacent Attitude May Kill Us

“Mike, you know we don’t sleep in class,” admonished Mrs. F.

“I don’t feel so good,” I told her, raising my head and looking at her.

“Go home,” she replied. “Now. Go look at yourself in a mirror. Then go home.”

Would a young teacher today even recognize a case of the measles? Chances are she would never have even read about the symptoms — including red spots all over the face.

Mrs. F had seen lots of people with the measles — and the mumps, chicken pox and other childhood diseases. I venture to guess she knew people who’d had polio. I did.

But if you’re younger than about 35, you’ve probably never seen anyone with measles or some of the diseases that once were common. In 1960, 441,703 cases of measles were reported in the United States. By 1985, it was down to 2,822 cases and, by 2004, just 37 in the whole country.

When I was a child, polio was the word no parent wanted to hear. It struck children most often, killing some. About 35,000 Americans a year were crippled by the disease. The last U.S. case was in 1979.

Vaccines have virtually eliminated most of the diseases that were common just 40-60 years ago. A friend of mine thinks that may be why panic over COVID-19 — the coronavirus — seems more widespread among young people than their parents and grandparents. Having lived such relatively carefree lives in terms of disease, it comes as a shock to them when a really nasty virus or bacteria pops up.

Health care treatment is much more effective these days. So, when something new like COVID-19 comes around, worry over whether doctors can save us from it affects people of all ages.

Confidence in physicians, medicines and hospitals makes us complacent, too. Though we have moderately effective vaccines against plain old influenza, a cousin of COVID-19, lots of people — especially young ones — assume it won’t hurt them and don’t bother to get the shot. The flu has killed about 14,000 Americans this year.

Many parents have become complacent over measles, too, to the point that some refuse to get their children vaccinated.

Yet the disease still kills about 70,000 people throughout the world, each year. Before 1963, when the measles vaccine was developed, 400-500 Americans died of it annually. If the COVID-19 death toll hits that in the United States, it will be deemed a national crisis.

Ironically, overconfidence in our health and in our health care makes us more vulnerable to emerging diseases. One of these days, something much worse than COVID-19 will make us pay for our complacency.

Myer can be reached at: mmyer@theintelligencer.net.

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