It was August 2013. My 17 month-old son, Michael, had just been released from the hospital after being diagnosed with a very rare intestinal disorder. He had been on continuous intestinal feeding for two weeks and now required a very special diet and multiple specialist appointments. My surgeon husband had just started his first job after 11 years of training. He was very busy trying to build his practice. I was working part-time. And just when I thought life couldn’t be busier, a beautiful family arrived from an African country to be hosted in our home for a month. They had two lively, intelligent children and we looked forward to a happy time together.
We took it a day at a time. By the time we had bathed, dressed, fed (and sometimes re-fed) all four kiddos we moms felt like going back to bed! After about a week, however, we seemed to have settled into a system that involved a lot of time outside our small house exploring the city. This was very exciting for our visiting African family, as they were not used to the well-organized grocery stores and spacious malls.
We all eagerly looked forward to our first weekend together. It was going to be busy with activities including church, a citywide summer parade with fireworks, swimming, and a luncheon with friends. Thursday morning, our African family’s six-year-old girl, Kimmy, woke up with her “jaw hurting”. Nothing appeared abnormal and we thought maybe she’d slept on it wrong. At breakfast, however, every time she tried chewing she would cry, complaining that her jaw hurt. I looked in her mouth and felt her neck—nothing unusual. After breakfast, she stopped complaining and we thought maybe she was getting a cavity.
We spent the morning shopping at Kohl’s. In the afternoon, we took the children to our local children’s museum where they played all afternoon. Kimmy seemed fine, although she complained of a bit of a headache. That evening, when we ate dinner, Kimmy refused to eat. She cried and cried, complaining her neck hurt. I examined it carefully and noticed a little bit of swelling along the left angle of her jaw. That night, she spiked a high fever and spent most of the night crying and moaning her neck hurt.
By the next morning, the entire left side of her neck was swollen and the swelling was spreading to the right side. I took one look and immediately texted a picture to my infectious disease colleague. She immediately called me to say my fears were well founded and I should contact the public health department. Within 24 hours, tests confirmed that Kimmy had mumps. Worse yet, we had traversed both Kohl’s and a children’s museum when Kimmy was most contagious.
Kimmy got really sick. For over a week she had spiking fevers, poor appetite, and swollen salivary glands. Finally, she began to get better. We all breathed a sigh of relief, ready to get out of the house again (we had been quarantined while she was ill). But freedom from isolation was not to come. Exactly 21 days from her first symptoms, Kimmy’s little brother James and my Amy started developing symptoms. James was even sicker than Kimmy and eventually had to have a feeding tube. Thanks to previous immunization, Amy had only a very light case.
I was most worried about Michael, however. With his rare stomach disorder, I was afraid mumps might complicate things significantly. The MMR vaccination can be given as early as 12 months. Many pediatricians don’t give it until the 15-month visit. I had chosen to give it at 12-months. I am so thankful I did. By the time our African friends started getting sick, Michael had already developed sufficient immunity from his 12-month vaccination that he was able to fight off the mumps virus. He did not get mumps. My vaccinated husband and vaccinated self also escaped symptoms. My mother was not so fortunate. She and my father were both exposed. He had been immunized; she had not. She got the mumps; he did not. She was very sick and missed significant days of work.
Our house was quarantined a total of 21 days. The vacation for our friends was almost ruined (we tried to make it up the last few days they were in town). Two children and one adult had significant complications. Others in the Chattanooga area were exposed. The worst part about the entire scenario: all of it was completely preventable. Had our friends’ children been appropriately vaccinated with MMR (not available in their country of origin) this micro-epidemic would not have happened.
But it could have been worse. My husband was just starting his practice, his whole career could have been ruined if he had gotten mumps and inadvertently transmitted it to a patient. What if I’d gotten mumps? Even working part time, I would have missed significant amounts of work and potentially exposed vulnerable children. And what if Michael had gotten mumps. Barely out of the hospital, mumps would have been a significant setback. I am so thankful that the scenario did not get played out. Thanks to immunizations, that little mumps epidemic was stopped in its tracks.
In my next article, I’m going to discuss some of the issues with “cocoon” immunity. I will also discuss some of the legitimate concerns parents raise about vaccines. Read more.