This year we had the opportunity to travel to nearly ten countries. Aside from the normal processes of purchasing tickets, booking rentals cars and lodging, coordinating meet-ups with friends, planning the itinerary, and the new normal of PCR tests and passenger locator forms, we did what we’ve always done – check our vaccination cards to make sure we’re current. Our destinations this year included regions where contraction of contagious diseases is minimized with routine vaccinations and other measures. I don’t take for granted the ability to travel safely in areas where deadly diseases are common.
Where I lived as a child, many fatal diseases were endemic. Daily, we boiled or filtered our water. Those who didn’t have access to clean water got sick. Those of us who did have regular access (a minority) generally didn’t get sick. Water-borne diseases kill over 3 million people each year. These diseases are preventable through proper treatment of water through an expensive filtration system, digging an expensive well or burning costly fuel to boil water. In many societies we take this for granted because governments deliver unstoppable fountains of flowing water generally free from contaminants. If they don’t, it’s a moral outrage that forces government action [remember Flint, Michigan?].
Another daily ritual was the unceremonial lowering of the mosquito net. I always ensured it was tucked in tightly around the mattress. Unfortunately, the mosquito net often inhibited the greatly desired light breeze. But it also kept other pests like spiders and roaches out of my bed. Mosquitos transmit deadly diseases that kill hundreds of thousands of people, particularly children, every year.
Other diseases arrived on food. All fruits and vegetables were washed in bleach water. You don’t want to catch hepatitis from a tomato. Every salad tasted like bleach, a minor nuisance. In the United States, if there’s salmonella on lettuce, the government issues a recall on thousands of potential contaminated bags of lettuce which are then destroyed. In the United States I don’t have to consciously, daily, make an effort to not contract a deadly disease from my breakfast.
For other diseases there were vaccines. We didn’t think twice about some diseases that had higher rates of sickness and long-term effects because we were vaccinated. I never gave a thought to yellow fever or polio because the vaccine is basically 100% effective.
In many ways our life revolved around practices of disease prevention. They became second nature to the extent that they weren’t even a point of discussion. We just did them. Until someone got sick. Then we’d run down the list of preventative measures to determine where we went lax and make sure we didn’t make that mistake again. That soft serve ice cream that gave us all the runs? Yeah, we don’t go there anymore. They obviously didn’t use filtered water. The afternoon dip in a clear pond that landed someone in the hospital with bilharzia? Yeah, we don’t swim there anymore.
This was life.
Where I currently live we don’t need mosquito nets. We don’t bleach our fruits and vegetables. One sip of tap water won’t set me off with diarrhea for two weeks with a visit to the hospital to be rehydrated through an IV. But there are still preventative measures we take for a newer disease. We have moved from pandemic to endemic. COVID in all its variations has transitioned from a pandemic to ‘simply’ another deadly endemic disease.
In our ventures this year, I’m grateful we had the opportunity to teach our children what daily deadly disease prevention practices look like. They’ve heard me recount the stories of the time I contracted this disease or other, despite our best efforts. It’s not something they had to consider on a daily basis until COVID showed up on our doorstep in 2020. I took disease prevention practices for granted until a pandemic disease brought a lifestyle of prevention back into common practice.
Prevention is a daily, personal routine. I know this from years of first-hand experience. Now the children are learning what it means to personally take responsibility to inhibit contagious diseases. It means adapting our lifestyles and all the inconvenience and discomfort that comes with it – whether it’s a shot in the arm, a medical mask in enclosed public spaces or tucking in a dusty mosquito net for the one millionth time. We do it and carry on.
We do it with profound gratefulness to God for access to the resources needed to prevent or mitigate disease. We do it prayerfully, lifting up those who currently bear the burden of illness. And we acknowledge heroes like Kelly Chibale who devote time, talent and treasure to make those same resources and tools available to those suffering under the crushing weight of endemic diseases.