My earliest memories are of the fear in my parents’ voices. Polio had again shown up in our community. It was 1951 and they closed the public pools. Pre-schoolers like me stayed at home. My mother went to help another mother give Sister Kinney treatments to her paralyzed child. The crippling of polio, the many Americans in iron lungs...threw a shadow over that summer.
So when the Jonas Salk polio vaccine was finally released, everyone was relieved. I gladly took my shot and later booster shot. My parents fears were gone.
Even when the Cutter Labs released a bad batch of vaccine where the virus was not fully “processed” and it caused polio cases, we had faith that the scientists would correct it. Indeed they did. Polio was eradicated from this continent and heroic efforts are being made to wipe it out in the final corners of the earth today.
That indeed happened with smallpox. The last case in the U.S. was in 1949. Worldwide vaccination and quarantine ended smallpox in the wild in the 1970s in Somalia.
I witnessed the deeply pock-marked face of a smallpox survivor in the streets of Macao in 1976. I can understand the tremendous motivation that a population would have to end a disease that is so disfiguring and often fatal.
Our pioneer history is laden with the statistics of children who died an early death: cholera, tetanus, contaminated water. Pioneer parents had up to a dozen children so a few would survive. Today’s water treatment plants utilize chlorine or ozone to dramatically drop the counts of harmful waterborne bacteria. And we vaccinated. Today’s parents expect their two-plus children to survive.
And I travel in Asia or meet with international colleagues from Russia. I find that many have lost permanent teeth at an early age from lack of fluoridation. This is not cosmetic, but needless pain, suffering and continual discomfort they will have all of their life.
Whooping Cough–Measles–Tetanus–Contaminated Water–Dental Cavities...the list goes on. Numbers that should be going down, are now going up.
And today we see even more concerted efforts to end chlorination, fluoridation, and vaccination in the United States.
There are two main causes.
The first is the very success of science itself. When a new generation grows up without any direct knowledge of dreaded infectious diseases, they no longer have the awareness or memories to consider vaccination or chlorination important. It was the children on crutches and the people on iron lungs in our own communities that provided the public support that led to the medical breakthroughs and the eradication of infectious diseases.
With serious infectious disease gone from our experience base, today’s generation is susceptible to false claims that vaccines are harmful and were never effective.
This is denial—denial that the smallpox and polio vaccines ever worked!
The second is the Internet.
I can only ask: If today’s Internet existed back in the 1940s and 50s, could we ever have eradicated smallpox and polio from America? And who would be responsible for that added death and suffering since then?
If the influenza of 1918 returns—and it’s more a matter of when than if—we’re unlikely to have enough morgues to hold the bodies.
Will it take a massive pandemic to restore our trust in vaccination, our very trust in science?