Sitting by her son’s hospital bed, Meleese worried and hoped. The doctor came and checked on him daily; every day, he would start by asking how Meleese younger daughter, then 7 months old, was doing, and he “checked her out from top to toe each time as well as examining my son”. After all, she was at risk too.
Meleease’s son was only three. He had rotavirus. Rotavirus “is the most common cause of severe diarrhoeal disease in infants and young children globally. Rotavirus is responsible for approximately 527,000* deaths each year, with more than 85% of these deaths occurring in low-income countries in Africa and Asia, and over two million are hospitalized each year with pronounced dehydration.” ; and see here, for detailed numbers. No, it’s not just a stomach bug; According to the CDC “Rotavirus infection in infants and young children can lead to severe diarrhea, dehydration, electrolyte imbalance, and metabolic acidosis…. In the prevaccine era rotavirus infection was responsible for more than 400,000 physician visits, more than 200,000 emergency department (ED) visits, 55,000 to 70,000 hospitalizations each year, and 20 to 60 deaths.”
This is what happened to Meleese’s son. At the time, there was no vaccine to prevent rotavirus. When the young boy started feeling bad his parents thought he had nothing but a stomach bug that caused diarrhea and vomiting. But the child was suffering, so they took him to the doctor. Three times. The doctor gave them a couple of prescriptions, but they did not help. He was getting worse: throwing up continuously, having severe diarrhea, weakening. The third time the doctor saw the child he sent him directly to the hospital.
Meleese says: “I'll never forget that trip. He was so sick he couldn't sit in his car seat and tried to lie on the floor. I ended up sitting in the back with him and holding him while we made the trip. He was completely listless. He was so dehydrated that they had trouble finding a vein for the drip and when they finally got one in, he went into shock.
“My son lay in the hospital bed, hooked up to drips and monitors. I truly thought I was going to lose him.” Meleese’s fear lasted for a week; luckily, her son did not die, and her infant daughter did not get the disease. But the fear stayed with her. And the distress. Meleese remembers, today, that one of her father’s brothers died at the age of three months from “diarrhea”. She thinks it was rotavirus, but the disease was not named until later. She is grateful to have her son. It still hurts her to think of that time, her son’s suffering and her own pain and fear.
This was not the only vaccine preventable disease Meleese’s children went through. They also both contracted chicken pox (that vaccine, too, was not available at the time). Meleese describes their suffering: “Although my children didn't require medical treatment beyond trying to soothe the itching and cuddles if they could bear to be touched it was a miserable experience for them. They [the lesions] were in their mouth, their ears and my little girl especially was miserable because of where they were on her.” Meleese breastfed both children for over 2 years; but that did not prevent the disease.
Children suffer when they are ill, and a parent’s heart aches with them. We fear, and we hurt. Before vaccines, Meleese’s story was all too common, and did not always end with a whole child coming home, or a child coming home at all, as other posts on this blog demonstrate. Children still get sick and hurt, unfortunately; but Meleese's experience is no longer routine.
In Meleese’s case, the story had a happy end not just for her son but for other children. A young doctor, touched to the core by seeing a child die from rotavirus, decided to do something about it. Dr. Paul Offit explains: “I was an intern at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh and witnessed an infant die of dehydration secondary to rotavirus. It was my first exposure to how serious this disease could be. It was also the first time I ever had to tell a mother that her previously healthy child had died. Late at night in a busy city emergency room. Awful. I'll never forget it.”
Dr. Offit's response to the tragedy was to dedicate his life to preventing similar tragedies. He spent 25 years working on a vaccine for rotavirus, creating Rotateq. Meleese said: “That's why Dr Paul Offit Is my hero. I'll never forget the day I read in the paper there was now a rotavirus vaccine. I raced and found my husband and screamed "Look! Look!"”
With a little luck, children that have access to the vaccine and that are not medically prevented from getting it can avoid suffering this way: (meme courtesy of Refutation to Anti Vaccine Memes)