That’s the only word to describe it.
“Today people have forgotten about polio. I gave a talk not long ago to a group of young parents who were somewhat skeptical about immunizations, and when I mentioned polio, one of them asked me why I was talking about a shirt — as in Polo. She had never heard of polio,” Schaffner recalled.
How is someone in the U.S. managing to walk through life so clueless as to never hear of polio? Not in health class. Not in history class. Not from a doctor. Not from looking at a vaccine record. Never.
Let me tell you about Barbara, the third child in a family of four beautiful girls. Among her many talents, she played guitar. In their teens and early 20’s Barbara and her sisters sang on the radio. They were good. Life went by. Barbara, young and in love, got married and planned to raise a big family of her own. Then she got sick. Very, very sick. Barbara contracted polio.
Her life’s dreams shattered. No more guitar; she couldn’t move her arms. No more singing; her voice allowed no more than a tiny squeak. No more husband; “for better, for worse, in sickness and in health” didn’t mean he wanted to spend the rest of his life caring for an invalid.
Some might say Barbara was one of the lucky ones. She lived. She didn’t need a machine to breathe for her. After spending a long time in a rehabilitation hospital, she gained a little movement in her hands and wrists. Not a lot, but enough to do a few things. After an aide changed the bags attached to tubes in various orifices of her body, bathed her, got her dressed, set her in her wheelchair, combed her hair, and pushed her to breakfast, she could feed herself.
Eating wasn’t how you or I might feed ourselves. Someone else would prepare the food, fill her plate, cut everything into bites, and position the plate in front of her. With a fork securely taped to a long, heavily padded knitting needle, Barbara was able to move her wrist just enough to stab a bite and maneuver it to her mouth. Unable to lift a glass or move her body to reach a straw, she’d wait for a drink until someone was available to help.
After breakfast, when she was lucky, someone would have time to brush her teeth for her. If someone would push her up to a high table and position a book where she could see it (not too close, because her neck wouldn’t bend down), and hand her a pencil, she could use the pencil eraser to turn pages and do a little reading until someone pushed her to lunch. Then dinner. Then undressed her and put her to bed. Day in, day out.
It’s not a shirt. Polio is devastating.
Before the introduction of a vaccine in 1955, approximately 1,000 people a year died from polio. Many more continued to live, paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair. Due to vaccination efforts, wild polio in the U.S. was conquered by 1979. In 1999 the U.S. eliminated the OPV vaccine and switched entirely to the inactivated vaccine (IPV), solving the problem of vaccine-induced disease. Since then, the only cases of polio seen in the United States have been attributed to unvaccinated travelers contracting the disease in another country and bringing it back here (then passing it on to others in their community).
The only caveat is that people who have had an anaphylactic allergic reaction to streptomycin, polymyxin B, or neomycin should not get the polio shot, since it contains minute amounts of antibiotic to prevent bacterial growth in the vaccine. Anaphylactic allergy to latex is not currently listed as a contraindication to the vaccine.
Back when OPV was used (in the 60’s and 70’s), there was a very small chance of contracting polio from the vaccine – but not necessarily the child. Parents whose children were vaccinated were instructed to keep the baby away from elderly people for six weeks because they might not have immunity (8-10 people per year contracted polio this way). That is no longer the case. People do not get polio from the inactivated vaccine. There are no documented side effects from IPV. The only little glitch is the possibility of pain at the injection site – easily solved.
For more information about the polio vaccine:
- Traveler’s Health – Yellow Book
- Patient Stories
- CDC Pink Book
- CDC Vaccine Information Sheet
Barbara was my grandmother’s sister.
There is no way my children will be given the chance to contract a vaccine-preventable disease. Especially polio.