Are You Contagious?

09/12/2011 02:24 pm ET | Updated Nov 12, 2011

How do you rate your health, and the general health of your community? Have you gotten used to washing your hands everywhere you go? Do you carry a little anti-bacterial squirt bottle in your bag or briefcase?

Just to put things in perspective for you, though the United States is arguably one of the richest, most forward-thinking nations of the world, we are ranked 34th by infant mortality rate -- by the way, this is behind Cuba, Croatia, Germany, Australia, and Israel. I would have thought we'd be first. Interesting that we've let our health care slip and slide so far down the line.

One of the red flags might be the cavalier way we treat prenatal and new infant care, and specifically, vaccinations. We can do better. While it is a well-known fact supported by the World Health Organization that infant immunization is considered essential for improving infant and child survival, this message is somehow becoming diluted before it reaches many parents' ears.

You may remember last year that there was a terrible outbreak of whooping cough in California, and ten children died. It was the worst outbreak reported in our state since 1947. And in addition to that horrific news, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there were ten separate measles outbreaks, nationwide. The words you're about to read won't help soothe the sorrow of the ten families in California, but for the rest of you, please take note that these diseases are preventable.

Back in the 50s, I was one of the babies who got the smallpox vaccination in the butt, instead of the arm, and so my button-sized scar is hidden there, rather than exposed in a more obvious place, which I'm happy about. As a kid, I contracted most of the other childhood diseases; chicken pox, measles, and unfortunately, the mumps. Not pleasant experiences, any of them -- in fact, a couple of the diseases could be life-threatening to some. But for me, each illness usually meant high fevers, itchy rashes, swollen glands, being kept out of school, and also some extra attention from my mom.

But I was lucky. My brother caught Scarlet Fever, and everyone in our family had to get painful injections. I distinctly remember being chased down the hall of the doctor's office to receive that shot, and I screamed and fought like a tiger. It took my dad, mom and two nurses to hold me down. But, I didn't catch the fever. My brother was very sick -- back in those days, he could have died from it. Now 'Scarlet Fever' is treated well with antibiotics. Thank God and scientists for medicine.

Other people we knew contracted Polio -- a devastating, crippling disease. As soon as the Polio vaccine became available, I remember my parents gathering us kids and lining us up with all our neighbors to take the free polio vaccine drink. In fact, we would line up and stick our arms out to receive any of the free vaccinations offered at the school, because we all knew people who had become very sick, or had died from one of these horrible illnesses. And back in those days, they could be horrible. Vaccinations offered protection. They were our miracles.

By the time my own children were born, smallpox was a thing of the past -- eradicated, and the doctors no longer vaccinated against it. But I made sure my children were vaccinated against the ten major diseases, including, polio, measles, diphtheria, whooping cough, German measles, and Hepatitis B. Some of these can be deadly. My kids 'caught' the chicken pox, but now your child can even be immunized against that one.

Sadly, some parents have bought into a now de-bunked antivaccine theory posited in 1998 by Andrew J. Wakefield, that vaccines can cause autism in susceptible children. This erroneous concept gained traction, and unfortunately sustains it in some circles until now, even though the fellow who wrote the paper was later accused of falsifying his data, and lost his medical license. Go figure. Does everyone know that he lied about his data, and lost his license because of it? Probably not. Do new parents realize that whooping cough can kill? Probably not.

Our health is vital. It should be a wake-up call to all of us that our country is number 34 on the global list by infant mortality rate, and we need to fix that. But what is even more critical is where infant and child mortality falls in your own family list of priorities. It's just a wild guess, but I'm betting you would place it at number 1.

So, think about the concept of being contagious, and what that might really mean to you, and your loved ones. I for one am grateful for science and medicine, and the advances that have allowed us to conquer so many horrible diseases and illnesses so far, and I'm supportive of ongoing research that will allow us to eradicate even more deadly diseases in the future.

And for the time being, while hand washing is a good start, it's not enough. Happily, many vaccinations can still be had for free.