Today I watched a really interesting documentary called “First Contact: Lost Tribe of the Amazon”, which follows a team of Brazilian anthropologists who study isolated indigenous groups living in a stretch of Amazonian jungle straddling Brazil and Peru. In this documentary, they trace the first contact and resettlement of a small tribe of roughly 35 indigenous men, women, and children in Brazil who are fleeing persecution from the Peruvian army.
There was one part of the documentary that was exceptionally moving for me. When the first group of young warriors emerge from the forest and enter a small village, the team of anthropologists stationed there do all they can to dissuade the men from trying to take piles of clothes and blankets. As the narrator explains, the anthropologists know that these clothes and blankets are riddled with germs that the could make the indigenous—who have not developed any antibodies to fight diseases—severely ill, even kill them.
Sadly, this is exactly what happens. As one man explains later, they came to the river often to watch the villagers and all they wanted was to wear clothes like they saw the villagers wearing. Another later says, “We like the clothes… we are embarrassed to be naked.” Bringing the clothes back to the other members of the tribe, the man recalls putting them on and soon after feeling a burning. All those who put on the clothes ended up riddled with fevers. Most in the tribe became severely ill. Several died. It was only once this uncontacted group emerged from the jungle for resettlement that the Brazilian government was able to provide them with medicine to combat the fevers that ravaged them as a result of wearing clothes. (Watch part of the footage here)
This is a perfect example—perhaps the perfect example—of the dangers of not receiving vaccinations. Avoiding serious illness is only possible when you are completely isolated, like this tribe in the Amazon. However, the moment you break through this barrier of isolation, you run the risk of contracting deadly diseases that your body cannot fight, even through an act as simple as putting on a shirt. And to be clear, living in the U.S. is not living in isolation. I am just one person and in my travels I’ve been exposed to everything from influenza and polio to typhoid, yellow fever, and malaria. To come into contact with me is to potentially come into contact with these diseases.
To echo Melinda Gates, we take vaccinations completely for granted in the U.S. because we’ve forgotten how deadly these diseases truly are. Few people in the U.S. know what death from diseases like measles, yellow fever, or influenza look like. Have you ever seen a polio survivor, unable to work, reduced to begging on the streets with malformed arms and legs? If you have, you are probably like the countless mothers in Asia and Africa who are walking 10 kilometers one-way to get their children life-saving polio vaccination drops. I’ve been lucky so far. I’ve traveled to malaria, yellow fever, and typhoid zones and never contracted the diseases. Friends of mine have not been so lucky. In many cases their health has been irreparably weakened and damaged.
As the vectors for these diseases change, which indeed they already are, people who once never had to worry about getting vaccinated will need to take preventative measures. These diseases are real, they are scary, and we are not safe. For example, in Indiana and Kentucky we are experiencing an outbreak of West Nile Virus. There are already confirmed deaths. So many measures can be taken to avoid these deaths. While there is no vaccine to prevent West Nile Virus, there are vaccines to prevent other related mosquito-borne illnesses.
Protect yourself, protect your children, protect all those around you and get vaccinated! I agree wholeheartedly with Melinda Gates, we are incredibly lucky to have this technology and we ought to take advantage of it!