We called my paternal grandmother Nana. She was born in 1911 and lived her whole life in Preston, Lancashire in the north-west of England. I always knew that her first child, Barbara who was born in 1933, had died but it was never spoken of and it wasn’t until years later that I found out what killed her.
It was December 1935, Barbara had just turned two the previous September. Nana dropped Barbara at her mother’s house for a few hours and my great grandmother let her play with a neighbour’s child who had recently had diphtheria. Barbara caught it and died.
When I began working on vaccine communication I also began to wonder what her death was like. After I had researched it a little I wished I hadn’t, as I imagined her turning blue, the disease squeezing the air and the life out of her. It was never discussed and I’ll never know - was Nana with her, was she in hospital?
Despite the fact that a diphtheria vaccine was available from the end of the 1920s, she was unvaccinated. The NHS had not yet come into existence and vaccination had to be funded by local authorities, Lancashire had always been a poor area and diphtheria vaccination wasn’t properly introduced until the 1940s. By that time it killed around 4000 people a year and for 5-10% of children under five it was fatal, making it the third leading cause of death.
Now the diphtheria vaccine is in with the tetanus and pertussis shot and cases are mercifully rare. New babies get immunized at 8 weeks and you need to get a booster every ten years. But it all came too late for Barbara. What must it have been like for Nana to suddenly have an empty house for the years that intervened before she had my father? And even after that, how unbearable to keep silent about it, to turn her face from the unspeakable loss, the empty seat at her table. There were no photos of Barbara on display in the house, but when Nana died we found one she had kept in a shoebox under her bed, of Barbara aged 18 months.
These things leave their mark on families and we will never know the full extent of our loss – a loving daughter, sister, the mother of a brood of cousins, or by today a sympathetic 82 year old family member?
For me, it’s hard not to feel angry when I hear of people who have left their children vulnerable to a potentially fatal vaccine preventable disease. Because no parent should have to bury their child if it could have been avoided, because these deaths should be consigned to history and because I should have had an Auntie Barbara.