Germ warfare and sibling rivalry

A few years ago, I witnessed an interaction between two of my nephews that resulted in a moment of pure blinding insight into my own childhood.

We were staying at Mr E Man’s sister’s place over Christmas, as were his other sister, her husband, and their two boys. The host family also have two boys, and the four cousins were thrilled to not only be staying together, but also skiing together. However, on the morning of the planned group ski, we all got up early to find the host sister already up. She looked rather haggard and bleary-eyed, and held a deathly pale, snivelling, coughing wreck of a kid on her knee. It turned out that he’d caught the cold that had been going around, and had been up all night coughing. His mum had just told him that he was too sick to join the rest of us on the slopes, and he was understandably devastated – not just at the loss of the day of skiing with his cousins, parents, brother, and assorted aunts and uncles, but also because the news had made him cry in front of his cousins.

The younger brother appeared in the room.

“What’s wrong with [name]?”, he demanded of his mother.

“You must have given him your cold, sweetie”, she answered. “So he can’t come skiing with everyone today”.

Well, the sick kid lost it. He yelled at his little brother for making him sick, causing the little brother to start bawling in turn. Sobbing, he managed to get out “I’m so-so-sorry… I didn’t me-me-mean it… It wasn’t on pur-pur-pur-pose…”, but his big brother continued to tell him that it was all his fault that he couldn’t go skiing.

And that’s when it hit me…

Little kids don’t understand how illness is spread!

That sometimes it just happens!

That it’s not deliberate!

Suddenly, I saw some aspects of my relationship with my parents and sister in a completely different way.

You see, when I was barely two and my sister was just a few weeks old, I caught whooping cough (aka pertussis). I was very sick – but the real problem came when my sister caught the disease from me. At such a young age her body just wasn’t able to cope, and she ended up in an incubator in intensive care.

We almost lost her.

As you can imagine, this illness was very traumatic for my parents, especially as it took my mum a good few days to convince the doctor that she wasn’t just a neurotic new mother and that there actually was something very, very wrong with her baby. As a result, the story of How Your Sister Almost Died was a major part of our family’s oral history as I was growing up; even though I don’t remember the events themselves, I feel as if I do, because I heard the stories so often from my parents and Nana.

Now, the thing that really hit me when I saw my nephews playing the blame game was that the way I was always told the story was, “well, you got whooping cough, and then you gave it to your sister, and then…”

“you gave it to your sister”.

By the time I was old enough to really think about the story, I obviously understood that I accidentally gave my sister whooping cough. That it wasn’t deliberate. However, when I first heard the story, and for probably quite a few repetitions of the tale over a number of years, I was too young to grasp that, and no doubt understood that it was my fault that my sister almost died.

I’m fairly sure that I internalised that sense of responsibility and the inferred blame that came with it, and that this affected my relationship with my immediate family. But I really didn’t understand all this until I saw my nephew blame his brother for making him miss a day of skiing.

Now, I’m sure we’ve all heard stories of people being tried and convicted for deliberate infection of their partner(s) with HIV – in one local case, the perpetrator was convicted of aggravated sexual assault, and quite rightly. Fortunately, such cases are rare. Sure, people might pass on viruses or bacteria through negligence or lack of understanding of the routes of transmission – by failing to wash their hands, for example. However, most transmissions of infectious disease are no doubt purely accidental, and indeed unavoidable.

I just wonder if maybe we should be explaining this to kids…

after we vaccinate them against whooping cough, of course.

About Cath@VWXYNot?

"one of the sillier science bloggers [...] I thought I should give a warning to the more staid members of the community." - Bob O'Hara, December 2010
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14 Responses to Germ warfare and sibling rivalry

  1. Alyssa says:

    That is so sad that you felt (were) blamed for your sister’s almost death! I want to give your two-year old self a big hug!

  2. bean-mom says:

    Awww, your poor nephew! And poor you!

    My kids like to talk about germs a lot (we’re always getting sick around here), and we say things like “you gave Daddy your cold.” I’ve never thought about whether they understand that they’re not at fault when they do that. Hmmmm, maybe I should explain that…. (though neither has ever displayed any guilt for making anyone else sick! Then again, none of us has ended up in a hospital or missed a fun day of skiing with family!)

  3. chall says:

    aww… that’s just one of the things with being young and not knowing the diff btw “giving it b/c you want to” and “just giving it”….

    As for the whooping cough and vaccines, that was one of the big issues in California last spring with young babies (like your sister) getting it from their older siblings since they weren’t vaccinated. It’s a dangerous disease for small ones, indeed. Glad your sister was fine in the end! (and you of course)

  4. Lisbeth says:

    Catching colds from someone rather than someone giving it is probably a less guilt-inducing way of phrasing it…

  5. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    Alyssa, me too, kinda, although that would be weird.

    It’s not like it was something I thought about all the time or anything, it was more of a background thing. Anyway, luckily for me, blogging is cheaper than therapy 🙂

    Bean-Mom, yeah, it’s a weird little quirk of English (or maybe other languages too?) that we use the language of blame to talk about something that isn’t anyone’s fault. I wonder if it comes from some historical (i.e. pre-germ theory) belief about how diseases spread?

    Chall, yes, this is why the anti-vaccine movement makes me so mad. Kids are dying from whooping cough again, when it’s a fully preventable disease now.

    My sister and I are indeed both fine – although we both tend to get very nasty coughs after every minor cold. The kind where you cough until you hit your gag reflex… gross!

    Lisbeth, I agree – but it’s not something you’d necessarily even think of!

  6. Frank says:

    But it’s funny that normally when we speak of gifts, that is a good thing! “It’s very generous of you to share your fine virus with me!”.

  7. Dr. O says:

    I *gave* my most recent cold to my little Monkey, which then proceeded to a brutal ear infection. I’m a microbiologist, yet I felt so horribly guilty after I found out what was wrong him, thinking it was *my fault*, and feeling like a terrible mom. If a grown-up with a good understanding of disease can feel this way, there’s no doubt that it would be that much worse for a young child. I feel so sorry that you experienced that guilt.

    FYI, I know several moms around my neck of the woods whose vaccinated kids are contracting whooping cough now. Pretty scary, and I’m wondering if the anti-vax movement allowed for a new serotype to develop. I can’t stand the idea of people not vaccinating their kids, especially when it can have such destructive effects on everyone else.

    • chall says:

      It might be due to the difference between the DTP and the DTaP vaccines…[anecdotal and not published result] the DTaP vaccine (afai remember right now) has fewer antigen areas than DTP (but also less reactions after vaccination).

      It’s been mentioned if this might be a reason for some occurence of whooping cough among vaccinated children (since they might have antibodies against part of the pertussis, but not all…) but I can’t say I’ve seen any publications about it, and maybe because the correlation isn’t true but rather an anecdotal/false causation?! It’s been more about the “younger siblings/children getting ill due to adults not having an effective vaccination”.

      Note that the vaccine one would recommend to adults/parents would be Tdap – another formulation yet again…

  8. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    Frank, heh! The “what doesn’t kill ya makes ya stronger” mentality, perhaps?!

    Dr. O, yeah, it seems to be quite deeply ingrained. I hope Monkey’s feeling better now.

    I hadn’t heard about vaccinated kids getting whooping cough – that is indeed very scary.

  9. ruchi says:

    Admit it Cath. You were jealous of the baby and totally TRYING to kill her with whooping cough. 😉

    Seriously though, that’s a scary story. Your poor mother!! Glad it worked out okay!

  10. cromercrox says:

    it took my mum a good few days to convince the doctor that she wasn’t just a neurotic new mother and that there actually was something very, very wrong with her baby

    I do hope doctors have changed. When I was about five or six I was quite seriously ill with the measles [note – most antivaxers are probably not old enough to realize that this was a serious disease] but the family GP was convinced that I was suffering from nothing worse than Neurotic Mother Syndrome. Through the GP’s inaction, the measles was joined by pneumonia. That’s when my mother telephoned a family friend, who was also a GP, who advised my mother to describe a certain set of symptoms when next on the phone to the doctor. The symptoms were for bacterial meningitis. The ambulance arrived within minutes.

  11. Alejandro says:

    In January I’ve infecting to my two children with otitis symptoms (but they have healed), is a bacteria which I’ve caught in a dirty pool (had swimming). I still feel very guilty.

  12. Ruchi, GAAH! Rumbled 😉

    Cromercrox, I think there are still some bad apples, but hopefully most doctors are better educated now than in the past. I’m glad your mum’s friend was able to give your mum such valuable advice, and that you got the help you needed.

    Alejandro, that’s too bad – but it sounds like you’re all OK now, and that’s the main thing!

  13. Amelie says:

    Phew, Cath, that’s a tough story about you and your baby sister. I’m glad you both got out ok!
    And regarding doctors and how seriously they take their patient’s concerns, honestly, from my own experience, there’s still a lot of room for improvement…

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