Lessons from a virus past

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An invisible (to the naked eye) virus is wreaking havoc today. But two summers ago, another virus taught me how connected our lives are.

Viruses have always been around to keep us on our toes. Every now and again, it might do us good to throw our minds back to keep our approach fresh.

“My first case of the summer,” the doctor declared, sounding quite jolly and unperturbed. But then our hearts sank. This was our son he was talking about. And it was chickenpox he was talking about. And these were the beginning of the summer holidays.

Actually, my first thought was of gratitude that at least his exams were over. It was a good thing he has holidays now (no school days marked ‘absent’, no notes to catch up on via his WhatsApp class group…) — typical Indian parent thinking, in fact. Well, turns out our chap probably contracted the virus from school — from some child who was sent to school by parents who probably did not want their child to miss his or her final exams.

Anyway, we learnt that chickenpox is most infectious during the days leading up to the appearance of those tell-tale bubble-like blisters. So, whoever (child or adult) our son met in the previous days was at risk of getting chickenpox too. The day before the diagnosis, my son had a play-date with a close friend. That boy’s parents are good friends of ours and we meet socially too. Unfortunately that summer, their younger child was not even two years old. So, it meant she too could get it. Now, we were all very worried.

Connected lives

And then, there were other things to consider — my husband and I work from home, but our friends didn’t (now they have WFH because of the coronavirus). This meant that their respective colleagues too could be at risk. Also, at that time, our friends employed a cook and a nanny for their toddler. One of them had a relative who worked for another family in the same building. So now, more families could have been exposed to this virus. And worse, so many more livelihoods were at risk. The possible pool of exposure kept widening, leaving us worried and tense.

 

As it happens, our man got lucky. He had only a mild case and recovered in a little more than week. But within two weeks of his diagnosis, I had got it too. And so did his friend and the toddler. Unfortunately, their father got it too, even though he took a preventive antiviral course of treatment. Perhaps because of that, the other parent had a fairly mild bout. However, my son’s friend and I got it pretty badly. We were both covered in bubble blisters from head to toe, making any movement — even sleep — difficult. The only silver linings were that the toddler got it but mildly and recovered quickly, and neither the cook nor the nanny got it. So, the other families in the building were spared.

However, all of us adults spent the entire summer feeling miserable. In my case, I was tense, irritable and also covered in scars and scabs.

Of vaccines and viruses

That summer, my husband did not get chickenpox even though he tended to both my son and myself through our respective bouts of illness. He had had chickenpox as a child. Similarly, while the father of the other children got it, his wife didn’t. “I got it while I was in high school,” she told me. But that didn’t stop her from spending many weeks anxiously scanning herself for telltale bubble-like blisters — as her son, daughter and then husband, got chickenpox.

In case you’re wondering, yes, my husband and I did, in fact, vaccinate our son against chickenpox after his first birthday. But we hadn’t given him the booster shot, which was recommended to be administered before the 10th birthday. In a strange coincidence, the other boy hadn’t had his booster shot either. Would the older children have contracted the disease, if they had? (The toddler was yet to be vaccinated). We did berate ourselves but realised that such thinking was pointless. In fact, many people told us it was a good thing the children had caught the virus when they did. That summer, we had, without knowing it, quite accidentally organised our own ‘pox party’ — involving two families.

So, what is a pox party? Well, it is a practice popular among ‘anti-vaxxers’ (those who believe vaccinations do more harm than good and hence, choose not to immunise/vaccinate their children). According to a 2017 paper in the Journal of Medical Ethics (https://jme.bmj.com/content/44/4/257): “Pox parties are a controversial alternative to vaccination for diseases such as chickenpox. Such parties involve parents infecting non-immune children by exposing them to a contagious child. If successful, infection will usually lead to immunity, thus preventing infection later in life, which, for several vaccine-preventable diseases, is more severe than childhood infection. Some may consider pox parties more morally objectionable than opting out of vaccination through non-medical exemptions.”

They say chickenpox is worse the older you are. And I can definitely vouch for the truth of that statement. Because my bout with the virus left me out of action for a month. But thing is, I could afford to take that time to get back my strength. However, cooks, maids and nannies who are potentially exposed can hardly afford to fall ill.

So, I am very grateful they did not contract chickenpox that summer.

When an invisible-to-the-naked-eye virus is on the loose, no man is an island. The ripple-like effects touch all of us and the larger community. Lives and livelihoods are then affected. Because we lead such connected lives. That is what the virus taught me.

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