A few days ago as I read the newspaper, I started thinking about how lucky we are to live at this time in history. The obituaries told of those who had recently passed — 81 years old, 85 years old, 87 years old, 92, 93, 95. Indeed, the “baby” of the group had been 63 years old. When the 95-year-old woman was born in 1919, the life expectancy was 53.5 for males and 56 for females; she had lived almost four decades longer than was expected at the time of her birth. Babies born in 2014 enjoy a life expectancy of about 79 years (76 for males and 81 for females).
How much these people had witnessed over the course of their lives! During their eight or nine decades on this earth, they witnessed a world war and the Cold War, the Great Depression (1929-39) and the Great Recession (2008-09), the first humans in space, the advent of computers and the Internet, and the launch of McDonald’s. They experienced drug store soda fountains, penny candy, loaves of bread that each cost less than a dime, and gas that cost 20 cents a gallon — and, they came to know a world with vaccines.
The oldest woman mentioned was born in 1919. At that time the smallpox vaccine was available and the whole cell pertussis vaccine was relatively new, having been developed five years earlier, in 1914. By the time the 87-year-old was born in 1927, the diphtheria vaccine had been recently licensed. Even when the 63-year-old was born in 1951, the only additional vaccines were tetanus and the influenza shot. The tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis vaccines had just been combined into the DTP vaccine in the late 1940s, and it wasn’t until four years later, in 1955, that the polio vaccine was first licensed.
As I sat with the newspaper in front of me thinking about these people, I realized that in addition to the memories of soda fountains and penny candy, they also took with them the memories of diseases that once ravaged our communities. These people knew the horrors of polio and not understanding how it was spread. Indeed, some of them probably weren’t allowed to swim in the summer; others may have remembered Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s call for people to send their dimes to the White House to fund research into the disease.
They probably knew people deaf from mumps, heard of relatives who died during the influenza pandemic of 1918, and, themselves, experienced childhood diseases like measles and chickenpox. Indeed, they probably knew people who died from or were forever changed by their brush with meningitis before the advent of vaccines for pneumococcus, Haemophilus influenzae type b, and meningococcus.
Because we don’t see these diseases as often today, we don’t share the memories of our older relatives. The diseases may not seem that bad, but the next time you talk to an older relative, ask about the soda fountains and the penny candy — and ask if they remember the diseases we prevent with vaccines.
Read more about when vaccines were available and the history of the schedule.