Bill was born in England, in 1936; he lived through the blitz. He had an older sister and a younger sister. After World War II, two more brothers were born. Bill says: “Disease was a constant part of our lives. Mother drummed it into us that we must wash regularly or we would end up with a deadly disease... My first memory of an outbreak was when my sister and I caught measles. It went through the school like wildfire. I was quite young and I don't recall too much except being kept in bed in a darkened room because my eyes were very painful. Mumps followed. Chicken pox. my mother told me that I had a mild case of whooping cough.
“It was when I was a bit older in the late nineteen forties at school with the usual circle of friends and when my younger sister and two brothers came along that I became aware of the shocking effects of some of the diseases. My brothers both caught whooping cough more or less at the same time. I was horrified to hear them cough so deeply, retching as the cough forced more breath from their lungs than they could possibly hold, going blue in the face then a tremendous breath inwards with a blood curdling gasping 'aaaaaaaaagh whoooooop' which seemed to go on for a long time, lungs expanding beyond their control, then coughing it all out again to start all over. Mother called the doctor but he was too busy to call immediately because the disease was everywhere. We heard later of those who were permanently brain damaged by the disease. I knew one girl who suffered brain damage, which affected her for the rest of her life.
“When my younger sister caught measles I had to soak bedsheets and flannels in cold water to help control the fever she had. Once again we heard of others who were permanently affected. We were running scared of the effects of these diseases.”
School years were no better: “…at least two friends of mine were badly affected by polio in the 1940s, one had a permanent limp and the other had a withered arm for the rest of their lives. One boy at my school died of the disease when I was there. The spectre of being put in an iron lung hung over us. When there was an outbreak of polio (known in those days as infantile paralysis) we never went swimming, or to the sports changing rooms, school toilets were dreaded places for fear of catching the disease in those places.”
Picture courtesy of CDC, found on the Public Health Image Library.
Polio was not the only disease to affect his school mates: “Two died of influenza. One is deaf because of measles.”
Bill worries about decline in vaccination rates. He worries that it might “bring those miseries back to haunt our children and grandchildren”. He points out that: “We children knew nothing different, it is only with the benefit of hindsight that we can see how bad it was. Nowadays, very few people are even aware of the mental, social and physical toll those fears had on past generations. The stress felt by mothers looking after their sick and suffering offspring, caring for the disease damaged for years, watching their children die, must have been dreadful for them. ”