Triumph of Vaccines Lost to History

In the interest of promoting more robust discourse around the importance of regular vaccinations for serious but preventable contagious conditions, MHA@GW is hosting a guest post series in honor of National Immunization Awareness Month (NIAM). Throughout the month of August, we’re featuring pieces from thought leaders and advocates in the field who were asked to write about the importance of immunization in 2015. Read more about the project in our introduction post.

By Dr. Natasha Burgert, KC Kids Doc

I remember the pale mustard yellow chair. The fabric was worn so badly that the raised paisley pattern had nearly vanished from the edges of the arm cushions. A permanent concave mark endured where my grandmother sat.

In that big, old chair I would sit on her lap. Together, we would read all sorts of stories and tall tales, but what she liked to read most was the local paper. She would carefully read aloud each report, from the front page to want ads. Between each article, she would add her 2-cent editorial of the news.

“That just can’t be,” she would say of the day’s legislation. “Truman would never have let that pass.”

“Can you believe what they get away with these days?” she would say, sneering at a woman in a one-piece swimsuit from Sears.

Over time, her reading lessons were less about the news and more about herself. Her comments revealed her own values and bits of our family history. She shared traditions and common sense that only increased in value as I aged. Her words gained new meaning as I grew from a child to a young adult.

As I imagine sitting with her today, in that mustard paisley chair, I wonder what she would think of the headlines. Specifically, what would she think of Americans becoming ill from vaccine-preventable diseases?

I think my grandma might say, “My neighbor died of measles. We were so scared when your mother got the rash. I thought she was going to die, too. I thought everyone got a shot to protect themselves these days.”

She might get tears in her eyes, saying, “My brother still limps after being attacked by polio. When we could get that vaccine, I remember dragging your mother to the school, waiting in the line with our neighbors, and thanking the heavens that our kids have been saved. Why would people not want to protect their babies from that horrible disease?”

Unfortunately, I can only dream up what she might have offered based on what I know of her history. I no longer have the privilege of hearing these experiences firsthand; to learn her fears and the choices she made. And I’m not the only one.

Our generation is losing access to these historically important stories of death and suffering from disease. The memories of lives that were taken away too early by now-preventable illnesses are hidden away in our own family trees. The retelling of the desperate pleas for a miracle is becoming silent.

We are now witnessing the consequences of this fading oral history.

Today’s news does not tell stories about the miracle of vaccines. The narrative has changed from reports of successful vaccines to waves of warning. The opportunity to protect our children from disease is being incorrectly framed as oppressive and dangerous. Meanwhile, the success of public health initiatives is being compromised. Outbreaks of vaccine-preventable disease are increasing. More kids are getting sick.

Today we each have an opportunity to change this trend. We live in a time our grandparents could only imagine — with one click we can reach our families, friends and entire community. We can let others know a way to stay protected and safe from tragedy.

We each have the power to share our stories of healthy and thriving children protected by vaccinations.

We can work together to continue a swell of pro-vaccine dialogue on the communication channels we use everyday. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram — these communication tools matter, just like the local newspaper that my grandma read to me. These channels carry influence and trust based on the connections we have created. Our words carry weight in these social places we live.

For National Immunization Awareness Month, choose to share your story. Tell your history. Create one post on your favorite social channel to stand up for the victory of vaccines. A simple post, image or tweet may land in the feed of a person making the choice to vaccinate. Your effort could be the very thing that helps another child get the protection they deserve. Working together, our efforts and our voices will not be lost. They will be amplified as they are carried forward into the future, in a place where our grandchildren will be able to learn from us.


Natasha Burgert, M.D., FAAP is a practicing pediatrician in Kansas City, Missouri. Outside of full-time patient care, she is a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics Counsel of Communications and Media and on the Physician Advisory Board of In addition, she serves as the pediatric expert and is a valued mentor to numerous health solution start-up companies through TechStars. If she is not in clinic, you will find her sharing evidence-based child health information combined with her personal experience on, and on Twitter @doctornatasha. She is fueled by her husband and two children.