That awful smallpox story

One of the more disturbing images from General Conference was in Elder Packer’s use of a story (a version of which I’ve heard before elsewhere) about chicken pox and smallpox. Elder Packer stated:

“When I was in the seventh grade, in a health class, the teacher read an article. A mother learned that the neighbor children had chicken pox. She faced the probability that her children would have it as well, perhaps one at a time. She determined to get it all over with at once.

So she sent her children to the neighbor’s to play with their children to let them be exposed, and then she would be done with it. Imagine her horror when the doctor finally came and announced that it was not chicken pox the children had; it was smallpox.

The best thing to do then and what we must do now is to avoid places where there is danger of physical or spiritual contagion.”

As a parent, I think, “What an awful story!” At the same time, I’m not sure exactly what lesson we are supposed to draw from it. I know, Elder Packer states, “The best thing to do then and what we must do now is to avoid places where there is danger of physical or spiritual contagion.” And yet I am struck by the impression that that mother’s action wasn’t a particularly bad idea. After all, it is better to get some diseases as a child than as an adult. (My mother had adult mumps, which was a lengthy and miserable experience; childhood mumps is almost always less severe).

In addition, quarantine is not always a perfect solution. We read about the Native American populace, which was decimated by the advent of European diseases that they had never been exposed to. That experience suggests that one long-run result of quarantine is the creation of populations that are uniquely susceptible to disease.

Finally, one aspect of Elder Packer’s story that really bugs me is its use of what seems like a very unfair Deus ex Machina. If I’m a parent and I have a chance to get my children’s chicken pox experience over with, I think it’s a rational and normal thing to take that chance. Introducing the hidden variable of smallpox at the end — was the mother supposed to know this? — is like saying, “One day Kaimi got on the subway to go to work, but little did he know, a crazy gunman was on the subway that morning and shot him. Ha! Serves Kaimi right for taking the subway.”

Perhaps I’m just reading it wrong — perhaps smallpox was more common, and known to have similar symptoms, and the mother was negligent in her actions. In today’s world, where smallpox has been completely eradicated, are we still supposed to keep our children out of contact with other chicken-pox kids — on the miniscule chance that a newly discovered -pox will then infect them? (Or perhaps that smallpox wasn’t really eradicated — cue X-files music).

So, I’m not entirely comfortable with the story. And yet, it seems to carry a few potential lessons that I can pull out:

1. Inexpert vaccination is bad. I’ll agree with that one — and perhaps it’s a reason why we should take care in introducing new members to controversial topics. (As discussed in another thread). We shouldn’t be presuming to vaccinate; let the doctors do it. (But, what if the doctors aren’t? Is inexpert vaccination better than no vaccination?).
2. Sometimes you just have to quarantine people. I agree; perhaps the church feels that certain strains of spiritual thought (Mike Quinn; the Toscanos) simply require quarantine. And yet, again, I’m not sure if this says the whole story. After all, permanent quarantine can be very damaging. In addition, it is not the whole story. Smallpox wasn’t eradicated by quarantine (though outbreaks could be stopped); smallpox was eradicated by vaccination.

Those are my thoughts; I’m not sure what others thought of this story. Am I missing any obvious points? (Probably). I’m curious as to what readers think of these ideas, or if others have a different way of approaching this talk.

12 comments for “That awful smallpox story

  1. Kingsley
    April 29, 2004 at 12:42 pm

    The point is to avoid spiritually dangerous places. The anecdote is simply not a very good one. You could overanalyze Pres. Monson’s use of Great Expectations in the same way—when the lawyer, Jaggers, tells Pip he’s got “great expectations,” Dickens is quite obviously dripping with irony—he means exactly the opposite of what Pres. Monson got from it. What to do? Chalk it up as a disadvantage of giving one million talks per year and move on.

  2. cooper
    April 29, 2004 at 12:49 pm

    Kaimi – I grew up in the age of associative vaccination. It was a common practice for parents when learning that chicken pox were in the area a choice was made “to go ahead and get this over with”.

    It may possibly be the illustration Bro Packer was seeking. Do we, as parents or individuals, sometimes approach decision making with the same mindset. “Well, if Kaimi’s mom says it’s okay, I guess you can go, because she’s such a great mom”. Bro Packer was speaking to the body of the church. He’s not speaking to a group of educators, or well learned people. The concepts must be simply stated and clearly presented. I agree that those of us who are farther down the road than others have a difficult time seeing the message in there for us. However, it is there too for us. I used to be bored by many meeting or talks. “What’s the point of this?” Then I had the opportunity to assist in the conversion process of an immigrant family. English is their second language and I have found many of the “simple” concepts I heard could now help me explain reasonings for certain things we do or don’t do as members of the church.

    So basic as it was, the message was clear.

  3. Julie in Austin
    April 29, 2004 at 1:07 pm

    I am sure that Elder Packer’s talk made perfect sense to people of his generation, or (as discussed previously at T & S) people in the Third World who live under similar conditions.

    However, I wonder what my cohort thought of this group. Shortly after his talk, I was in the waiting room at the pediatrician. There was an article in a parenting magazine on how to throw a chicken pox party (there is concern about the vaccination among some, but since so many kids are vaccinated, it is unlikely that your kid will pick it up naturally). So, the advice: ask your pediatrician to tell you when a kid has the chicken pox. Set up the party. Play games including musical lollipops. Set out a table of whistles and encourage all the kids to try them all. Etc.

    My suspicion is that Elder Packer was *not* commenting on these chicken pox parties, or he wuold have been more specific. However, I think some young moms may have been confused by this message.

    This is *not* meant as criticism. I don’t envy the GAs task one bit. I also thought this in relation to Elder Monson’s story about his Primary class saving money for a Christmas party. I wonder how many new saints in developing areas thought ‘what a great idea! let’s do it’ and aren’t aware that that is contrary to current procedure.

    I would hate my life if I couldn’t say a thing without 12 million people picking it apart. The 750 that read T & S is bad enough!

  4. April 29, 2004 at 2:48 pm

    I was having a discussion on this with my wife the other day. Exactly what is the problem with vaccinating against chicken pox? I had it as a kid and it definitely was not fun. Are the vaccines really *that* poor that they cause more problems? The argument I heard is that if you don’t get it as a kid due to vaccine you are likely to have it as an adult and that it has side effects on adults it doesn’t on children.

  5. April 29, 2004 at 3:18 pm

    Kaimi, I’m with you. Not a very helpful story.

  6. Gary Cooper
    April 29, 2004 at 3:32 pm


    I saw exactly what Pres. Packer was getting at, whether his analogy was the best one to use or not (I think it was a good analogy). I have known otherwise decent LDS parents permit their children to watch motion pictures (yes, of the R-rated kind) that contained nudity, sex, and extreme violence, because, “well, they’re going to see this stuff sometime, so better here at home where we can monitor it,” or, “well overall the movie had a good message,” etc. Once, when I worked as a custodian at a local high school in the early 80’s, I accidently discovered that the school was planning to introduce a terrible sex ed program (the lesson plan was pro-abortion, sexcually explicit, pro-teen sex, and contained numerous and dangerous factual errors), and without informing the kid’s parents. So, I did my duty and called up all the active parents in the ward with high school kids and let them know. The response? Almost all of them had the attitude, which they openly stated, of “Oh, well, there has to be ‘opposition in all things’, so this is no big deal!” I could only get one parent to even agree it was a problem. Not surprisingly, many of these same parents seemed shocked, SCHOCKED, when some of their daughters ended up pregnant out of wedlock, many of their sons refused to serve missions, and a large number of these kids went inactive and/or ended up in disciplinary councils as adults.

    Pres. Packer was addressing what seems to be a genuine heresy in the Church, this idea that somehow we do our children favors by “exposing” them to a “little” of the world, so they’ll be “inoculated”. This is BUNK! There is no way a young teenage deacon or teacher or priest can be exposed to nudity and explicit sex, on even a “small” basis, without a negative spiritual effect, as just one example. That is spoonfeeding them Babylon on its own terms, where only Satan can win. Do we need to teach our children about evil? Yes, but on the Lord’s terms–by actually studying the Scriptures, FHE, etc., not saying, “see this violence and sex and profanity? Okay now stop looking, and don’t look again. If a child grows up in a home where she was taught to read the Scriptures, pray, and recognize the Holy Ghost, that same child will be able to recognize evil, by how differently evil FEELS from the Spirit, and by how jarringly different it is from the righteousness they are used to.

    I’m glad Pres. Packer spoke on this, because it needs to be repeated over and over again. The Lord doesn’t want a “head in the sand approach”; he wants us to talk to our children about evil, and warn them, even at an early age, but throwing them into it just desensitizes them to it. My six-year old, to my knowledge, has never seen sex on TV, nor heard any really words yet, nor seen any extreme violence, but she knows who Satan is, and she knows he wants us to be miserable and to hurt us, and keeping the commandments is a protection. She knows that when she’s tempted to do or say something wrong or selfish, that Satan can use that to pull her away from God. She knows that her body is sacred and that Satan will try to get her to misuse it with chemicals she should stay from, and to by getting her to let someone other than her husband touch her. She knows she has a responsibility to look out for here little sister against Satan, too. She’s learned all these things from she and I reading the BoM together, FHE, and our conversing about these things. “Strengthening the immune system” is a better approach, when dealing with a diseases like sin that have no HUMAN remedy, than getting the child a small dose in the mistaken beleif that we can somehow control the world/s influence when we are on it’s home turf.

  7. Julie in Austin
    April 29, 2004 at 3:36 pm


    FYI, our kids are vaccinated against chicken pox, so this isn’t my issue, but here’s what I have heard:

    (1) There are always risks with vaccines. To vac. against a disease that most people get, generally doesn’t cause lasting damage, is to risk greater side effects.

    (2) The marketing has been sick. The main selling point: why take a week off of work to be with your sick kid when they could have been vaccinated? And many of the arguments in support of the vac. point to the financial cost of lost parental work hours.

    (3) When most people are vac., then those who aren’t (immigrants, people who can’t be vac. b/c other medical issues, lazy parents, whatever) are at a huge risk because adult c’pox is way worse than child.

    (4) There is concern that the vac. will wear off after 10 or so years. If everyone has to get boosters for the rest of their lives, this is a pain, and those who fall through the cracks, again, are at greater risk than an adult.

    Again, this isn’t my issue and I have no medical background, but these are the arguments I have heard.

  8. greenfrog
    April 29, 2004 at 7:25 pm

    Doesn’t “permanent quarantine” equal exile or imprisonment?

  9. Jared Patch
    April 29, 2004 at 7:40 pm

    Off the main topic, but I recommend for information on vaccines.

    Arguments in favor of vaccination include:

    1. The risk of severe side effects from the vaccine are less than severe side effects from natural infection (children can require hospitalization–and sometimes die from natural infection).

    2. The virus that causes chickenpox can also cause shingles later in life. In about 20% of people infected, the virus infects nerve cells and remains for life. (Herpes simplex virus, which causes cold sores, is a close cousin.)

  10. April 29, 2004 at 8:06 pm

    Jared’s number two is one important reason for chicken pox vaccination. Shingles is an outbreak in an adult of the chicken pox virus that has been dormant since childhood. It is an infection of the nerves and is very painful, even debilitating. I happened to be getting a physical on the very day that shingles first began to appear so my doctor was able to treat it and my experience was mild. But I’ve known people who weren’t so lucky and who suffered a great deal. Chicken pox may be no big deal (though I suspect there are exceptions), but shingles is a big deal (though there are exceptions).

  11. Ben Huff
    April 29, 2004 at 8:55 pm

    Wow, Gary, thanks for the story! I hadn’t really encountered this, but I can imagine it, and it is terrifying.

    Still, I thought the point of the talk was completely clear and important.

  12. Pingback: Our Thoughts

Comments are closed.