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

  • doc raymond

    DAn, thanks for the story on immunizations. The AP, as you know, ran a story nationwide this week, and a good friend, Mary Selecky the Washington State Health Officer was quoted saying this was going to create serious problems. My local weekly newspaper editor was also severely afflicted from polio and one of my high school girl friends wore the same type of brace as your friend. It is too bad that the 20-30 year old parents making these horrible decisions do not have the same experience as us old guys. And just to add to your story and examples, let us all not forget that the even more dreaded disease, Small Pox, has been eradicated from Earth, not just the Western Hemisphere, because of world-wide vaccination efforts.

  • Christopher Herrmann

    Hello Dan,
    Thank you for the keeping the need for vaccines alive. You might want to read: Polio: An American Story by David M. Oshinsky.
    I was just five years old in the summer of ’55. My father was a physican with the US Public Health Service and we lived in officer quarters at the USPHS hospital in Norfolk, VA. In fact, that might be me in the child/bed photo. I slept in a room my sister and two brothers. I’m the one that caught it. Which is ironic because the some of the very first vacination trials occured in Norfolk, in the Fall, when they could really monitor the children returning school. As this world of ours gets smaller the arrivals on our shores, many from regions in conflict where the WHO is not able to get to, we are sure to see the arrival of unwelcome virulent viruses again. I am so mad at parents that took that bogus study as gospel and possibly, by not getting the available vaccines for their children, might condemed them to a life of preventable suffering. My father always felt responsible for possibly bring the bug home from his hospital.

  • Linda

    I am not totally against vaccines, but after I watched my child’s reaction to the last one he got, I am very hesitant about any others. I got a titer test done for MMR that showed full immunity and was able to opt out of the last required one for school. I am getting a medical exemption the next one due and will wait until he is older to get it. I completely understand the feelings of those who were living during the polio epidemic, but there are far too many vaccines given to children now and those parents who have seen reactions are justifiably concerned. I am a college educated person and have done much research on every angle of the vaccine subject prior to making decisions. You can think anything you wish of me, but I make educated, prayerful decisions about the health of my children and will continue to do my best to do that as a parent.

  • Sara

    I don’t think you can group all parents who opt out of vaccines in one group. It’s one thing to opt out of a polio vaccine, another to opt out of a Hepatitis B or Varicella vaccine. Just as parents may group all vaccines into one category and opt out, some critics may narrowmindedly group all who opt out of any vaccine into one category too. Extremism usually doesn’t serve well to paint an accurate picture of people and their choices.

  • Dan thanks for reminding people why vaccines were developed and we took other steps to improve child hood health like water, milk, and food sanitation.
    People seem to think that Little Home on the Prairie is a documentary of conditions of the 1800’s.
    We can go back to a time without vaccines and sanitary regulations and live perfectly happily and healthy lives. People forget that life expectancy was 45 and not 80 years of age.

  • James Schmidt

    The parents that are opting out,claiming they are making an informed decision, are not making an informed decision. Please don’t take this the wrong way, I do not mean any disrespect. Yes, there can be adverse reactions to the vaccine but that risk compared to what may happen if your child contracts the disease is not in your favor. Your child faces more dangers from contracting the disease than from the vaccine. Therefore you are not making an informed decision but more on the lines of an emotional decision.
    Further, you are unfairly putting other children at risk who are too young to receive their vaccines. This is getting increasingly dangerous due to more and more parents opting out.
    I just find it inexplicable why some parents would think vaccines are that dangerous when the majority of health care professionals, public health officials, and researchers in the various scientific fields find them safe.

  • Sara

    I think some parents who opt out of some or all vaccines are not well informed and are motivated by fear. I think other parents who opt out of certain vaccines have done much more study and reading than parents who comply with all recommendations. My personal experience is that most parents who have all the vaccines done have not done much research of their own, and that parents who opt out have done more research and study. Others disagree with their choices and call them misinformed.
    As with all science, there is much room for interpretation and difficulty with holding controlled studies to create “proof.” Such is clearly the case for vaccines. Just read the argument at (the first one that came up when I googled) and you’ll see that research and data goes both ways. I haven’t read that particular paper in full, but it looks similar to many I have read.
    I spent hours over several months of time researching vaccinations, reading studies and books and commentaries. I studied each of the diseases recommended for vaccination, its history, risks of contraction, risks and type of injury possible if contracted, risks of injury possible from vaccinations. I read about the practice of vaccination in other countries, the process of creating vaccines in the US, components of each vaccine. I read lots of diametrically opposed information and some that was objective. I don’t think I am unique in my investigation. I was not uninformed or misinformed.
    Personally, I feel the severity of injury from healthy individuals in our current day and age contracting many of the diseases recommended for vaccination are greatly exaggerated, and risks of vaccinations are greatly underplayed. Our family opted out of some vaccines and made others a priority. Polio was certainly one we chose to have done without question, among others. But why should I have to vaccinate my newborn against a sexually transmitted disease (HepB) or the many communicable diseases found in daycare centers and public facilities where my baby will not visit (Hib or PVC or RV)? If my infant was in daycare or our lifestyle or community put the baby at risk, or if my baby or child was immune-compromised by poor diet or disease, I might make a difference decision. As parents, we made the decisions we thought was best.
    We also chose to adapt the schedule of vaccination rather than to follow a schedule most easy to achieve compliance (dozens of vaccinations at a time at well baby visits). Studies in Japan where vaccination were delayed to age 2 were associated with less harm to those vaccinated.
    Do parents wonder whether varicella is worth vaccinating against? Or are they easily bullied into compliance by pediatricians? I believe the varicella vaccine is harmful as a campaign, because it has made the traditional transmission of chicken pox in early childhood of the past impossible, and delayed the age of contraction to later for many people. Contracting the disease later in life can cause much more suffering and disability than in youth, such as sterility in males. And authorities are unsure of the effectiveness (15-20% may not even be protected when vaccinated) or how long the vaccines will last. All this to prevent a rarely serious disease, but instead to provide yet another money-maker for the drug industry and time-saver for parents who don’t want to take 2 weeks off work to deal with chicken pox.
    The practice of vaccination is scarred with mistakes, injuries and deaths just as it is with successes. I think many parents have thrown the baby out with the bathwater in regard to vaccinations. There is value, and there is little room for a middle road for most people. I believe parents should take the time to become informed and weigh the risks for themselves and make the decisions they feel are best. That is a basic freedom we enjoy in America, to choose what we do to protect our families the best way we can and try our best not to find fault with those who make a different choice.

    • Stand

      so well said.

  • Amber Brownsberger, RN, BSN

    A huge thank you for writing this article!!! As a public health nurse and parent of two small children I deal with parents who are making deadly choices for their children on a daily basis! How sad it is when parents refuse vaccines for their children. I totally agree that people my age have forgotten about these deadly diseases, because they don’t see them anymore THANKS to vaccines.
    I am extremely GRATEFUL for vaccines and all the millions of lives they have saved!!!!
    If only some of these parents could see and hear the heartbreaking stories of those parents who have lost children to vaccine preventable diseases; or see with their own eyes children struggling to live and beat a vaccine preventable disease, maybe they would think TWICE!!!
    Refusing vaccines is like NOT stopping at a stop sign. I wouldn’t ADVISE it!!!
    Amber Brownsberger, RN, BSN

  • jessica kennedy

    thanks for making this article i was doing a report on polio for my professor at my college and i couldn’t find a good article until now