My mother called a few days ago to warn me that measles is going around. Although I initially cocked my head and squinted an eye at this information, it turns out that she’s right. An email notice sent out to state government employees yesterday stated that there are now 75 confirmed cases of measles in California.
At least to me, measles seems terribly old-fashioned, a disease that, like polio, should long ago have been vanquished by the miracles of modern medicine. When I was a kid, the childhood diseases were measles, mumps, rubella and chicken pox (before it became fashionable to refer to it as “varicella”). I managed to contract the last three, but certainly not the first. Before parents could register a child in the public schools, they had to provide immunization records showing that their kid had been vaccinated against such dread diseases as smallpox, polio, diphtheria, tetanus and, yes, measles.
I imagine that measles must continue to be a vast public health threat in underdeveloped nations in which immunization is not widespread. But here in the United States? I think of Cheaper by the Dozen, in which the twelve Gilbreth children all came down with measles in the 1920s after they moved from Providence, Rhode Island to Essex County, New Jersey. But that was a good ninety years ago. Ancient history.
Mom listens to talk radio as she putters about the kitchen, and she told me about a local talk jock who characterized measles as a thing of the past only to have a middle age listener call in to say he had it as a kid. Mom says it’s obvious that he doesn’t know the difference between “German” measles (rubella) and the real deal.
I suppose my mother has the right to be suspicious, considering that she really did have measles as a child. She proceeded to tell me the story of how she was eight years old when she became sick with a high fever and then the famous spots. Her mother never allowed her to stay home from school just because she didn’t feel well, but this was different. It was one of the very rare times in her elementary school days that she couldn’t possibly go to school. My grandmother was working behind a sewing machine in her brother’s factory at the time, and she felt that she could not stay home from work. Thus, my mother had to stay home in bed alone.
Remember, this was about 75 years ago. The really scary thing about measles back then was the high fever, from which kids died or were left deaf or blind. Fearing for my mother’s eyes, my grandmother closed all the blinds, leaving my mother in a darkened room. After a few days of this, my grandmother told her daughter that Aunt Rose, wife of the factory owner, would be coming to visit her during the day. Now, Aunt Rose had a reputation as a nasty, vindictive person. As evidence of this, my mother points to the time that she fell and scraped up her knee. Aunt Rose tended to it by pouring boric acid on the wound. My mother claims to remember to horrible pain still. Well, on the day that Aunt Rose came to visit her little niece with the measles, she immediately pulled opened all the blinds and curtains to fill the room with light. Then she said she would fix my mother some soup, if only she could find a match to light the stove. Unfortunately, my grandmother had hidden all the matches for fear that her daughter, left alone and to her own devices, would burn down the entire apartment building. So Aunt Rose ordered my mom out of bed, measles or no, to crawl on the floor on her hands and knees to look for a match under the stove and the refrigerator. Of course, my grandmother had hidden the matches much better than that, and, oh well, there would be no soup after all. Aunt Rose waltzed off on her merry way, and my grandmother was livid when she returned home in the late afternoon to find light streaming into the small New York City apartment.
I only hope that the measles does not turn into an epidemic in California, instead disappearing as quickly as it arrived. Health officials are saying that it was introduced by a sick child visiting Disneyland during Christmas week. I can see what a public health nightmare can develop in the blink of an eye by something as virulent as the measles. I think about my own workplace, where more than two thousand of us are packed like sardines into 34 floors of tiny cubicles. As it is, bronchitis went around recently and every single member of my team, including their fearless leader (moi), came down with it. It took nearly a month and two courses of antibiotics for me to get rid of that nasty bug, and now a lot of us are coming down with colds again. And it’s just barely February. Clearly, winter is not going to go out with a whimper.
With a little luck, we may be fortunate enough to escape a plague of measles here in California. For the time being, however, I am glad to have had two hour-long phone conversations with my mother this week, and particularly that she was in the mood to share some of her childhood stories with me.