The first journalist I knew was the editor and publisher of a weekly newspaper who was confined to a wheel chair because he’d been a victim of polio as a child. Because of my early fascination with newspapers, he’d let me hang out on Wednesdays to watch the presses roll.
My best friend in high school also had polio as a child. He could still walk, but his right leg was diminished and required a brace for support. Going from sitting to walking required snapping that brace into place, which was not something that could be accomplished without being noticed.
Having friends who had polio was not unusual when I was growing up. Thousands of cases a year were being experienced in the United States — peaking at 58,000 in 1952. It was every mother’s nightmare.
Friends like mine who went on to have full and productive lives, even with leg braces and wheelchairs, were the lucky ones. For thousands of others, survival after the poliovirus meant life in negative pressure ventilator, an iron lung.
Dianne Odell, age 61, was one of the last polio victims to survive in an iron lung until three years ago, when thunderstorms knocked off the power in Jackson, TN and the back-up generators failed. She died where she’d lived since age 3, in a 750-pound machine.
Polio no longer exists in the United States, or the Western Hemisphere for that matter.
Vaccines have ended paralytic poliomyelitis. Mumps and measles, rubella and tetanus, and diphtheria are among the once-dreaded diseases that have not only been knocked down, they’ve been knocked out.
Vaccines have eliminated childhood sicknesses and deaths of biblical proportions and yet we have this report of parents opting out of school immunization programs in some disturbing numbers and troubling places.
The opt-out rates for the top five states for the 2010-11 school year were: Alaska (9 percent); Colorado (7 percent); Minnesota, (6.5 percent); Vermont (6 percent) and Washington (6 percent.)
While you would never know it from watching those Republican presidential debates, opting out of school shots really is not that difficult. About any religious or philosophical or medical reason will do.
In the top five opt-out states, it’s likely that those refusing shots are educated enough to have read about vaccines being associated with autism, but not educated enough to have caught the part about that being a hoax.
Since that myth first came out in 1998, television news has repeatedly promoted the falsehood that the vaccine for measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) might be responsible for autism. Since the story was found to be an elaborate fraud, TV has not shown much interest in helping straighten out the continued misperception.
Vaccines are a public health success story unmatched in human history. Public health agencies should spend about three years getting that word out.
The history needs to be told. Find out if there is an iron lung machine in storage somewhere and roll it into your school lobby and put it right in front of the trophy case.
Show how newer vaccines are also paying dividends. Since Texas not so long ago began requiring Hepatitis A vaccines, the number of cases dropped to 139 in 2010 from almost 5,000 in the high year of 1973.
Texas restaurant food is safer now that almost everyone going through state schools has a Hep A vaccine. That story should be told.
And everyone should know that all those smart people are making stupid decisions because there is already some evidence that high refusal rates are leading to the return of old plagues like whooping cough.
Iron lung and polio images courtesy of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention