The only thing we have to fear is fear itself (and needles)

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Paul Danish

I couldn’t have been more than 6 or 7 years old at the time. Today I am 74, but the memory is still vivid.

I had come down with some disease, probably strep throat. I was running a high fever. My parents were concerned. A strep infection could spread to your heart (it was called rheumatic fever then) and cause permanent damage or death. Fortunately, the year was 1949 or 1950, and there was an effective treatment available — the relatively new wonder drug penicillin. It was administered with a hypodermic needle stuck in your ass.
They called a doctor. He said he’d come by the next day (doctors still made house calls back then) and give me a shot if the fever hadn’t broken by then.

I had already had a few vaccinations, so I was terrified.

I spent the rest of the day and a sleepless night hoping against hope that my fever would go down by morning. It didn’t. The doctor said he’d come by in the evening after work. I spent the rest of the day experiencing escalating levels of fear and anxiety, which were much worse than the pain from the sore throat.

The doc finally showed up about 9 p.m. and gave me the shot. It probably hurt worse than it should have because of the anticipation, which can make you more sensitive to pain. The next day the fever broke. My parents were relieved. But not nearly as relieved as I was that the ordeal was over.

Since then, I’ve had needles stuck in me dozens of times. It’s never a pleasant experience, but as you get older you learn to live with it. It’s not as terrifying as it was when you were a kid, because at least the fear of the unknown is no longer involved. As you age, your sensitivity to pain decreases. And it’s a lot easier to pretend you are a grown-up when you are one.

But whenever I’m in for a blood draw or a shot, the memory of the little kid waiting to be stuck comes back.

The only time I can remember experiencing similar fear and anxiety in adult life was when I was in Tel Aviv during the first three weeks of the Gulf War in 1991. Saddam Hussein was shooting ballistic missiles at Israel and on the second night of the war several of them hit the city. That was scary but the really terrifying part was the knowledge that the next missile could be carrying nerve gas. I spent the next three weeks dealing with grinding anxiety, hair-trigger nerves, and barely suppressed panic whenever the sirens went off, which they did a dozen more times.

As had been the case when I was a kid, the anticipation was worse than the reality, but the level and the persistence of the anxiety and fear were comparable. That was instructive, because it reminded me in adult life just how terrifying the prospect of getting a shot must be to a child.

The reason I bring this up is a couple of factoids I’ve been thinking about recently. The first one was in one of those internet ranking pieces I saw last week. It declared Boulder County the most highly educated metropolitan area in the country, with 58 percent college graduates county-wide, about twice the national average.

The second one was a story from a couple of years ago when there was a big scare of a measles outbreak in the U.S. It found that Colorado had the lowest childhood vaccination rate in the country, and that Boulder had one of the lowest rates in Colorado.
There are all sorts of reasons offered for how the smartest people in America can fail to have their kids protected from diseases that can kill them or cripple them for life. The press tends to favor only Boulder ones.

I think the reason is more atavistic. It’s that almost everyone in America has experienced the pain and terror of getting shots as a child, and that the memory of the experience persists into adulthood. Educated, well-off parents living in a community that is relatively disease free (for now) have the luxury of being more empathetic to their chidren’s fears of the needle than people living in places where it’s fear of the disease that’s uppermost.

Still, fear of the needle should not be under-estimated as a contributing factor to sickness and death. It isn’t only kids who hate shots; millions of adults will avoid or delay seeing doctors out of aversion to being stuck until conditions that are treatable if caught early have become life-threatening. I have no idea how many lives are lost each year due to fear of needles, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the number came to six figures.

From time to time you hear of rich patrons who offer prizes for the solution of seemingly impossible problems — like the Kremer Prize for the achievement of human powered flight (won by Paul MacCready in 1977) or today’s Xprizes.

Insofar as I know, no one has ever offered a prize for the development of a completely painless system of inoculation. I wish someone would. I think it could end up saving as many lives as the inoculations themselves. And take a lot of terror out of childhood.

This opinion column does not necessarily reflect the views of Boulder Weekly.