The truth behind that weird scar on your upper left arm

Be proud. Having a smallpox vaccine scar is like walking around with the moon landing and the Sistine Chapel on your upper arm.

In the book Outlander, Claire, a British woman from the 1940s, finds herself in Scotland of the 18th century, recognizes fellow time traveler Geillis Duncan by the smallpox vaccination scar on the other woman’s shoulder.

I must admit I would have been just as easily recognizable because I happen to have just such a scar. It’s not for smallpox (which was considered effectively eradicated already way back in 1952), but tuberculosis. I was vaccinated as an infant and then again at school. Everyone was. A school nurse came by every now and then and did the yearly check-ups and vaccinations. For tuberculosis, they did some kind of test on the inside of the elbow and if someone had a reaction, they were vaccinated.

After the vaccine, many kids had pain in their shoulders and arms (and I remember the shot as being rather painful) and you were not supposed to hit someone who was just vaccinated. Not that you were supposed to hit at all, but “Hey, not my vaccination scar!” was a cult saying of these times.

My father recently told me that he is a little bit sad that vaccines don’t leave scars these days. Back in his days, the smallpox vaccine was given to people in the form of an injection on the upper arm, preferably left. After the injection, children would get a swelling bulge pouring out yucky stuff for 2-3 days. The swelling wore off, and then after 2-4 weeks emerges again. This time it turns into a water bubble and oozes liquid. Then it finally dries up and starts healing. The process leaves a scar (see image above) which lasts you for your entire life.

But I would have disagreed with his sentiment. I have three little scars on my left shoulder. They’re not big and you can barely see them. I still wasn’t comfortable wearing tank tops or anything showing off my shoulders, and if I had a choice between a vaccine that didn’t leave a scar and one that did, I’d choose the former.

These days, having a vaccination scar is the exception rather than the rule. I have spoken to friends from all over the world and they rarely have a scar if they were born in First World Countries and they’re around my age. I wasn’t even aware of it because I’ve always had one and so considered it normal. As it turns out, it wasn’t.

All this didn’t help me feel any less conscious about my own vaccine scars. I was glad that my children wouldn’t have them, because all of them got their jabs in their tights, and the tuberculosis vaccine is no longer repeated. I am also very relieved because the vaccinations my kids get are so much better and safer for them than the one I received, even if children these days get the shots against 6 or more diseases in one go.

Be proud of your vaccine scar

But something about recent happenings made me change my mind about my scars. In January this year, there was a measles outbreak at Disneyland which resulted in 102 sick people, many of them kids, and all thanks to one unvaccinated woman. Unfortunately to us all, anti-vaxers are doing a rather good job of spreading their information all over the Internet (I am even tempted to compare that to spreading of vaccine preventable diseases).

I had never heard of people not vaccinating because it was so rare. Now I personally know people who don’t think that vaccination rescues lives or at least who are unsure of the efficacy of vaccines. Someone in an FB group I belong to even suggested making a subgroup for parents who don’t want to vaccinate their kids, so I decided that I need to say something. I need to take a stand — and I only have to look at my left shoulder to understand what it is.

I am shocked that there are people who don’t vaccinate their kids because they believe in some crazy conspiracy theories, or don’t understand the science behind immunizations. It is sad to see that after we as much as eradicated small pox and many other diseases, some of them, like measles are coming back, due to parents’ lack of information or some absolutely irrational fears that are not at all based in reality and thus completely unfounded.

So while I still don’t consider my vaccination scars beautiful or gorgeous or pretty, I now begin to appreciate them and all the things that they stand for. I’m grateful for the fact that I’m still alive and haven’t died of any of the illnesses we vaccinate against. And most importantly, I’m thankful for the almost complete eradication of the diseases the vaccines target.

Now I look at my vaccination scars and don’t think they’re ugly or useless.

Instead, I decided to see it as a reminder. That my duty as a parent and member of society is to get my kids vaccinated so that they wouldn’t be sick themselves but also so that they would protect other children, whose immune systems don’t work the way they should.

My kids will not have the scar on their shoulder and I am glad. But I will tell them why we’re all going to the doctor to be immunized, even if it hurts and they feel cranky afterwards sometimes. Because a little crankiness is a much better than the alternative.

There is a reason why the immunization schedule is the way it is.

Vaccinations are one of humanity’s greatest accomplishments and I’m glad I have a scar to remember this. Having a smallpox vaccine scar is like walking around with the moon landing and the Sistine Chapel on your upper arm.