History shows the impact of vaccines

If you take the road from Paul Smith’s towards Malone, about 6 miles north, McCollom’s Cemetery comes into view on the right. Just beyond the entrance to the cemetery is the spire marking the graves of Amiel C. and Eliza Ann McCollom and their five children.

Amiel, born in 1819, and Eliza, born three years earlier, lived long lives for a 19th Century couple; Eliza passing in 1892, and Amiel, a year later.

The family was blessed with five children: Charles, born in 1845, taking his father’s middle name; Joseph, born in 1848; Eliza Ann, given her mother’s name, in 1851; Amiel, with his father’s name, 1852; and Freelove Orphena, born last in 1853.

Eliza Ann passed as an infant in April of 1852 at seven months of age, but the other children survived their first perilous early months and the family must have been grateful for their good fortune in an age when so many infants did not live beyond the first year or two.

Yet just as our Civil War was beginning, tragedy visited, the remaining children passing in the next few months.

On Sept. 2, the oldest son, Charles, died at age 17. On Sept. 12, their only surviving daughter, Freelove, died at 8. On the first day of October, 10-year-old Amiel, his father’s namesake, died. And on Jan. 2 of 1862, the last child, Joseph, passed. He was 14.

For us today, it is difficult to imagine the profound grief those few months must have brought Amiel and Eliza, how quiet their frontier cabin must have grown, how lonely their last decades.

No records exist telling us what sickness took away the children. The October issue of Smithsonian, however, has an informative article on diphtheria and how we conquered this devastating childhood illness, which often appeared with the wet and cold weather. Noah Webster wrote of the 1735 plague in the colonies that it “… gradually traveled southward, almost stripping the country of children … It was literally the plague among children … Many families lost three and four children — many lost all.”

With mandatory vaccination for diphtheria, we no longer face these terrible circumstances today — watching our children sicken and die as the disease slowly chokes off their airwaves. However, the Smithsonian piece also warns the illness is working its way back in places where people are not getting vaccinated. Once contracted, treatments for the disease are limited.

Some of us argue that our right to reject vaccination outweighs our responsibility to our neighbors — even though this may literally mean the death of a neighbor’s elderly parent or someone’s child. How are we to function as a society if we no longer respect our fellow citizens’ right to be safe from devastating illness?

We have seen over the past year and more what a focus on individual freedom to the exclusion of civic responsibility has wrought — tens of thousands who need not have died and unprecedented economic devastation. Living in a civilized society means making reasonable compromises. I remember when my parents were terrified of polio — and when I got the vaccine. Sadly, my older cousin suffered lifelong problems because he contracted the disease before the vaccine was available.

Please, get the vaccine.

Kirk Peterson is a retired Paul Smith’s College professor. He lives in Lake Clear.


Today's breaking news and more in your inbox

I'm interested in (please check all that apply)
Are you a paying subscriber to the newspaper? *

Starting at $4.75/week.

Subscribe Today