INNOCULATING THE CHILDREN OF THE UPPER VILLAGES
It was the fourth of October when I set out on the first inoculating trip, accompanied by Tatino Chavarín. The rainy season was not completely ended, the river was still too high to risk fording with all our equipment, but we could not afford to delay any longer if we were to complete the series—one application per month for three months—before my departure from the Sierra Madre in early December. My plan was to administer the DPT—diphtheria, pertussis (whooping cough) and tetanus—combined vaccine to children of ten years and under, and the oral polio vaccine to children under five. I had decided not to vaccinate against smallpox, as many years have passed without an incidence of smallpox. Also, with the smallpox vaccine there is more chance of untoward reactions.
The vaccines had to be kept cold, most critically, the polio vaccine. In Palo Alto last June, we had been donated a small battery-operated refrigerator, and had obtained two automobile batteries, plus a compact, hand-crank generator to keep the batteries charged. I ran into many snags, however, in getting the rig to work. When I discovered that the insulation of the small refrigerator was so efficient that it could keep ice up to four days in the hottest weather, I decided to forget the batteries and generator (which would have necessitated an additional mule) and transport the refrigerator alone, using it as an icebox. This way we would need only one pack mule.
I decided to vaccinate only along the main route to Verano, namely in the four major villages of Güillapa, Bordontita, Jocuixtita, and Verano. I regretted not including Saus, La Cienega, Chilar, and Caballo de Arriba, which are the next largest villages of my stomping grounds, but decided that they were beyond the limits of our ice and energy, at least for the present.
As ever, Tatino and I ran into endless difficulties in securing borrowed mules on time. We had planned to leave at the crack of dawn but discovered at the last minute that the mule and the one-eyed horse we had borrowed needed shoeing. On top of other delays, it was 10:00 A.M. before we got underway. This meant that we arrived late in Güillapa, and the children—whom the schoolteacher had assembled and kept waiting for us until noon—had been dismissed and were scattered hither and yon. We gathered them together again with the help of a crew of parents, but by the time we finished inoculating it was late in the afternoon. We arrived in Bordontita well after dark. Next morning we were vaccinating at the crack of dawn. Francisco, the gentle, alcoholic schoolteacher, quickly brought all the children together, and we were through and on our way by mid-morning, arriving in Jocuixtita just ahead of the afternoon rains. That night we inoculated in the light of carbide lamps. The entire trip we had to work against time, for if the ice melted before we finished in Verano, the vaccines would spoil and be useless. With driving effort, and missing several meals, we had managed to keep up fairly well with the schedule we had set. Then, on the morning of the third day, when we were hurrying to leave Jocuixtita for Verano, the boys we had sent to look for our grazing animals returned with the borrowed mule and one-eyed horse, but not with Hormiga.
“Didn’t you bring my mule?” I asked.
“We looked for her everywhere, but we couldn’t find her,” the boys replied.
So Tatino and I hurried to look for Hormiga. Between us I think we must have covered ten miles, over hill and dale, until at last Tatino whooped that he had found her. Next we had to catch her, which took some doing as she had taken a fancy to her freedom. We succeeded in herding her back onto the trail, but we had lost about two and a half hours.
As it turned out, our ice held out longer than our vaccines! In Verano, we ran out of both the polio drops and the DPT, and still the parents continued to arrive with their children, begging us to vaccinate them. The women from the three houses of Sapotitos, a rancho about two and a half hours away, arrived with small children and babes in arms requesting vaccination, but I had no vaccines left. I told them to come back the following month, when I would be sure to have enough.
On the second trip a month later we brought more vaccines, and still we ran out. The third trip we brought still more, and ran out. I was amazed at the success of our vaccinating program, and at the response of the villagers. The majority of the parents, far from objecting to our inoculating their children, were eager. The children were less so, as expected, but for the most part even they did not seem to mind a great deal. We did our best to make the experience happier for them by awarding each child a pencil or few colored crayons after the injection. They were surprisingly good sports. There was, in fact, more yowling on the part of the children under five, who received only the oral polio vaccine, than by the larger children whom we stuck in the backside. We conducted the inoculating either in schoolhouses or in the portals of private homes. This meant that the children could watch each other being jabbed. When one child had been injected the others would all ask, “Did it hurt?” and the first child would grin and say, “No!” And so they would build up each other’s courage. Only about five percent of the injected children wept, and this was almost always before they were injected.
In Verano there was one curly headed boy, named Alfredo, who, the first time around, began to scream and fight as his mother dragged him to the cot to be injected. I tried reassuring the child, but it was no use. Then his mother started beating him.
“That won’t be necessary,” I said, and Tatino and I took hold of the struggling child. The mother lowered his pants. They held him as firmly as they could, and for extra security I sat down on him, too, before injecting. I stuck him as lightly as I could, and standing up again, I said, “There, was that so bad?”
Alfredo shook his head sheepishly, took his pencil, and walked out.
The next time around a month later, Alfredo was one of the first children to arrive for vaccination. He marched over to the cot, lowered his pants, and did not even jerk when I injected him.
“Did it hurt?” asked the other children.
“Course not!” snapped Alfredo indignantly, and took his place with the others to watch the fun.
I was fortunate that, among all the children I inoculated, not one resulted with severe reactions. A few had slight fever for a day or so following, a few felt a little sore in the backside, but I had warned the parents that this was to be expected, and no one got upset.
Altogether, we inoculated 249 children, from ten years and under for the DPT, and from five years and under against polio. This is a small number considering all the children throughout the barrancas, but it represents about 75% of the younger children in the four villages where we did inoculate, and should be enough to prevent serious epidemics in these villages. In San Ignacio, several children died in a whooping cough epidemic this summer. In December a whooping cough epidemic struck villages along the upper reaches of the Rio Piaxtla, and along the coast diphtheria has struck a number of the villages in epidemic fashion. It is a comfort to know that at least one small area of the barrancas now has some protection against these diseases.