Last week’s news story linking the return of measles with the refusal of some parents to permit their children to be vaccinated against it tied in coincidentally with a book I was reading about polio and a news article I wrote 49 years ago about polio victims.
The recent news story noted that not only is measles returning, but so is whooping cough because so many have refused the vaccines. Both these diseases can be fatal. Measles can cause brain damage and pneumonia. Many older people know someone who lost a child to whooping cough or got whooping cough themselves and nearly all older people remember getting measles, scarlet fever or mumps.
These diseases, all of which are dangerous, potentially causing sterility to death, were nearly eradicated until a scientist in England published an article in 1998 linking autism to vaccines. The problem is that his science was wrong and his conflicts of interest major. Lancet, the journal that published the article, retracted its findings. Subsequent, more thorough and less biased studies, have shown no links.
Nonetheless, resistance to the vaccine persists and the disease returned, not just to the not immunized, but to those not yet immunized or unable to be immunized because of underlying health issues, or to those who might be losing their resistance to disease.
A disclaimer here: two of my children are pediatricians and their spouses are doctors, one a pediatrician and another is an internist. None make money from vaccines. One deals only with critically ill children. All are in agreement: vaccines save lives. Any adverse reactions are outweighed by the benefits, individually and collectively.
What’s this have to do with polio? When the so-called “dead” vaccine was released fully to the public in 1955 by Dr. Jonas Salk, there was fear that giving someone the polio vaccine could cause polio. Dr. Albert Sabin two years later released a “live” vaccine protocol that he thought was better. There were some problems both in processing and delivery. Mistakes were made. The vaccines weren’t 100 per cent effective (few are), and some children did contract polio from the “live” or improperly processed batch.
I clearly remember the controversy. But, I also remember the fear of polio which could kill or paralyze permanently. Epidemics were getting increasingly virulent and affecting a wider range of the public (rather than just infants or very young). In 1952 there were 58,000 cases in a population half of today’s. Pools, theatres, other gathering places were closed. Families were quarantined. Everyone knew someone who got polio.
The vaccine since has nearly eradicated polio world wide. But not everyone escaped. I wrote my article in 1962 and I wrote it about children being treated in the same therapeutic hospital that Dr. Salk first tried his vaccine. My story included that of 10-year-old Linda Corsi, who didn’t get the vaccine although most all children were vaccinated at school then. She lay in an iron lung able only to move her head.
I didn’t inquire why she did not get vaccinated, nor explore her family’s feelings. Other children at the home apparently had gotten polio before the vaccine. I don’t know what happened to Linda. I doubt she lived very long.
The point is that vaccines have eliminated diseases that once plagued and threatened children and adults. Vaccines have staved off epidemics. None is without some side effects, or is 100 per cent effective. All actions in life have risks from being born to driving in a vehicle to walking along the street. Minimizing those risks is what vaccines are all about. The Linda Corsi story is an object lesson.
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