I’ve been hauling around the virus particles for better than 40 years, taking them to mountaintops and to some of Germany’s finest cathedrals, among other scenic sites, and not once have the little ingrates so much as offered to chip in for gas money or beer.
But these microscopic hitchhikers have much more to answer for than simply being boorish guests.
They have in fact betrayed me.
Rather than express the slightest appreciation for all I’ve done for them, the varicella particles, lying dormant since they infected me with chickenpox 43 years ago, have attacked me once again.
The lousy traitors.
I am of course referring to the shingles.
This is a common affliction for people like me who had the misfortune of being born too early to get the varicella vaccine.
The Mayo Clinic informs me that shingles is most common among people older than 50, an age I will not reach until September. Clearly my virus particles — and I feel a certain ownership, frankly, if not kinship — have no more respect for the Mayo Clinic’s experts than they have for me.
It happens that I know, with considerable precision, how long I have been providing a safe haven for these unpleasant little boarders.
From the baby book in which my doting mother faithfully recorded all manner of milestones — I was, and presumably still am, allergic to the foaming bath product known as Mr. Bubble — I learn that on March 10, 1977, my parents noticed the telltale red blotches of chicken pox.
She described my case as “very mild,” which I suppose it must have been as I have only indistinct memories of the episode. Perhaps I was in a fevered state and suffering from hallucinations. Although probably not.
But my mom jotted down a more important detail on the same baby book page that covers both chicken pox and my first day of first grade, which happened about six months earlier.
(Also inserted into that particular page are some stapled sheets of brown construction paper from that first school day, during which I produced drawings so inscrutable that it pains me even now to look at them. One image seems to depict a hanging being performed on a jungle gym, although I don’t believe that actually happened.)
Mom wrote that she and my dad saw the red marks on the Friday before spring vacation.
Which is to say that the virus, even before latching on for its 43-year run, was already trying to foul up my vacations.
Given its tendency for such treachery I ought to have expected it would rouse itself before I reached the age when I might have considered getting inoculated against shingles.
Viruses are crafty organisms by any measure, of course.
They’re not alive, in the traditional sense, but once situated in a nurturing host — me, for instance, unwitting though my hospitality was — they demonstrate a frenzied capacity for reproduction to match any organism on the planet.
My recent bout with shingles, which left my face looking as though I had gone a few seconds with a professional boxer, renewed my already considerable respect for the science of vaccines.
(I realize the typical comparison is to having gone “a few rounds” with a boxer, not a “few seconds.” But I’m realistic enough to realize that if I was stuck inside the ring with a boxer for a few rounds — a round lasts 3 minutes — I would suffer far more than the swollen eye and scattered lesions that the virus inflicted on me. Also, the shingles effects are confined to one side of the face, a distinction I doubt a pugilist would bother to make.)
Among the once-ubiquitous childhood diseases that have become exceedingly rare due to vaccines, chicken pox is relatively benign.
The infection was less likely to kill a child than, say, measles, and rarely caused permanent effects as was distressingly common with polio.
But unlike other diseases that most children used to contract in the pre-vaccine era, including measles and mumps, chicken pox often is not a singular event.
With measles, kids would get sick, recover and then almost certainly be immune to the rubeola virus for the rest of their lives.
(It mystifies me as to why some people insist it is better to be infected “naturally” with a disease and so develop immunity. Personally I much prefer getting a shot that gives me the same protection but doesn’t require that I first spend several days feeling awful — and with a chance of coming down with encephalitis or some other life-threatening complication. I’m all for the notion that enduring tribulations help forge our character, but that doesn’t mean I eschew technological marvels. I don’t, for instance, want to crash into a bridge abutment and be flung through the windshield so I can better appreciate air bags.)
But varicella refuses to be permanently banished from its host.
I struggle to imagine anything more insidious than the reality that since 1977, the year of “Saturday Night Fever” and Blazermania, among other things, bits of that virus remained lodged inside me, as persistent as bone marrow, then launched their second assault on a body that had aged in ways its owner could scarcely account for.
Yet the virus, or so it seems to me, suffered none of the inevitable decay that the accumulation of years metes out.
Indeed, the particles this time around inflicted rather more damage than they did on my 6-year-old self. I don’t believe my mother, were she still keeping up my baby book, would, on seeing my face, describe the episode as “very mild.”
Also it would be embarrassing to read that I was, at the age of 594 months, still finicky about vegetables.
Jayson Jacoby is editor of the Baker City Herald.