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.