Diseases once considered eradicated in the United States, like pertussis, tuberculosis, measles, and mumps, have re-emerged in the past several years.

Pertussis is preventable with the “Tdap” vaccination (combined tetanus, diphtheria, and acellular pertussis) developed in the early 1920s and later perfected by Dr. Louis W. Sawyer. This vaccine led to almost complete eradication in the 1980s, and yet national levels of pertussis infection by age group is disturbing.

The CDC reports that infants aged six months or younger are at the greatest risk for severe disease and death, and there was a 60% increase in incidence observed among this age group from 2008 to 2010. Perhaps most telling is the rising incidence of diagnosed children aged 7 to 10. Cases among this age group saw a 9% rise in 2006, a 13% rise in 2007, a 23.5% rise in 2008, and a 23% rise in 2009.

Tuberculosis, caused by bacteria and spread through the air, is also making a comeback. In 2009, there were 11,545 reported cases of tuberculosis in the US, 29% of these among Hispanics. States with large immigrant populations have the highest incidence of tuberculosis.

Measles, a highly contagious viral disease that is spread through the air by small droplets, can be spread to your child just by being in a room where a person with measles has been, even up to two hours after that person has left. Because measles is common in other parts of the world, unvaccinated people can get measles while traveling and bring it into the United States. The year 2008 witnessed an outbreak of measles not seen since 1996 and 90% of those infected had not been vaccinated. With its high level of communicability and deadly complications, including pneumonia and encephalitis (swelling of the brain), one must ask why, in the wealthiest country in the world, measles still pose a significant health risk.

Mumps is on the rise as well. This contagious disease caused by a virus typically starts with fever, headache, muscle aches, tiredness, and loss of appetite. Then, the salivary glands in front and below the ear swell causing puffy cheeks and a tender, swollen jaw. Mumps can be prevented with MMR (Measles, Mumps, and Rubella) vaccine, which is very safe and effective. Before the U.S. mumps vaccination program started in 1967, mumps was a universal disease of childhood. Since the pre-vaccine era, there has been a more than 99% decrease in mumps cases in the United States.

In 1796, Edward Jenner created the first successful vaccine, and it was for smallpox. Smallpox was a terrible disease. The virus infected skin cells and led to significant bumps all over the body. On average, 3 out of every 10 people who got it died, and Smallpox killed some 300 million people worldwide in the 20th century before it was eradicated in 1977. By the time an intensified worldwide eradication program began in 1967 smallpox was already eliminated in North America (1952) and Europe (1953). The program made steady progress toward ridding the world of this disease, and by 1971 smallpox was eradicated from South America, followed by Asia (1975), and Africa (1977). Today, it is the only virus affecting humans that has been completely eliminated worldwide.

Polio, crippling and potentially deadly, was once one of the most feared diseases in the U.S. In the early 1950s polio outbreaks caused more than 15,000 cases of paralysis each year. The first polio vaccine was available in the United States in 1955 and following its introduction the number of polio cases fell rapidly to less than 100 in the 1960s and fewer than 10 in the 1970s. Thanks to the vaccine’s widespread use, the United States has been polio-free since 1979.

In the 1950s, recommended vaccines were Smallpox, Diphtheria, Tetanus, Pertussis, and Polio. I was born in 1954 and still bear the circular scar on my arm from the Smallpox vaccine. I also remember eating the sugar cube that delivered the Polio vaccine. Kids got an annual Tuberculosis test on their forearm, which left a circle of pinpricks. Unfortunately, immunity from mumps and measles came only from contracting the disease. Thanks to dedicated health care professionals, vaccines were later developed for measles (1963), mumps (1967), and rubella (1969).

My generation followed the vaccination guidelines; therefore, my daughter born in 1974 did not have to suffer these terrible diseases. So why are Americans allowing COVID to ravage our citizens when a vaccine could stop the spread? No doubt, those who first took the smallpox vaccine were skeptical, even afraid. Would it work? Would it have ill effects? Could it even cause smallpox? Then they saw their neighbors dying and took a leap of faith. The COVID vaccine has been proven safe and effective. Go ahead. Leap!

Cathy Ownby Wilhelm has lived in Sevier County all of her life and grew up in Pigeon Forge in the 1960s. Her stories are a collage of memories and ponderings of her life experiences and musings.