Memories of Life Before Child Vaccinations

people in iron lungs 1952

Many people needed iron lungs to breathe for them in the 1952 outbreak of polio

I’m old enough to have memories of life before child vaccinations were a standard part of growing up. Yes, we all got two kinds of measles, the mumps, scarlet fever, chicken pox. and, yes, most of us survived. Many babies suffered with whooping cough. Yes, we mostly ended up with natural immunity. But I’m here to tell you that when the vaccines against so many of these childhood diseases were introduced, our parents didn’t hesitate for a minute to have younger siblings or grandchildren receive the shots or oral vaccines.

And when I became a parent I had no questions about immunizing my children. But let’s back up one disease first. Let’s talk about polio.

Polio, poliomyelitis, also known as infantile paralysis, was a disease that terrified my parents and their peers. In most cases the infection was mild, similar to the flu, but in one-half to one percent of cases permanent muscle weakness and paralysis occurred. This may sound like a small number, but if the disease swept through an area the results were significant. My small town school had 750 students K-12. An epidemic of the polio virus would have left 3-8 students dead or disabled. That would have been a serious shock in a close community.

In fact, there were numerous people in my town who were affected by polio. One teacher wore braces and walked with crutches. Many adults walked with a limp or had limited use of a hand. They didn’t like to talk about it, but when questioned admitted they had polio as a child. The people who died from it were spoken of in hushed voices. I went to college with a man in an iron lung who attended classes through a remote TV hookup. This was pretty unusual in the 1960s.

There was a nationwide outbreak of polio in 1952. Pictures like the first one of a room full of iron lungs frightened everyone, as well they should. Having to accept that a huge machine forcing air in and out of your lungs was the only thing holding you on the side of life vs. death, and praying that you would recover enough to be able to leave the machine behind was a grim outlook. Parents agonized to see their children helpless.

In 1952, I was four years old. Every time I got a cold one of my symptoms, in addition to fever, headache and pain was a stiff neck. This is also a specific symptom of polio. Let me tell you, even as a small child, I could tell my mother was very frightened when I told her I had a stiff neck.

Smallpox vaccinations 1943

Children receiving the smallpox vaccination in 1943. Schools were the logical venue to ensure that children were vaccinated.

When, in 1955, the school lined us all up in the nurse’s office and we were all inoculated with the brand new (think “no long history of known side effects”) Salk polio vaccine, trust me there wasn’t a parent who said, “oh, you are not giving my child something I don’t understand.” And within just a few years polio was nearly wiped out.  It is still prevalent in some countries of the world, but the World Health Organization hopes it will be eliminated by 2018. That said, there have been attacks, both philosophically and literally, on those who are proponents of the vaccinations. One claim was that the vaccine was a western plot against Muslims and as a result new outbreaks of polio have occurred in Syria, Nigeria, and Somalia.

But no one should wish for a return to the days when polio ravaged people’s lives. There is no treatment for polio, it must run its course. But it is preventable.

a child with smallpox in Bangladesh

A child with a case of smallpox, Bangladesh, 1973

Before polio, smallpox was the real test case for the efficiency of vaccines. In 1796, Edward Jenner discovered that by giving people a mild case of cowpox they developed immunity to smallpox. There is some evidence that other cultures around the world attempted some form of generating natural immunity through introducing the disease into people on purpose and hoping it would be mild. The mortality rate from smallpox is 30-35%, and those who survived were usually left with horrible scars. No one is sorry that this disease has been considered by WHO as eradicated from the planet since 1979.

Only one drug was ever shown to be effective as treatment for smallpox, and it caused serious kidney damage. But the vaccine has eliminated the need for treatments.

Now to the diseases that some consider less serious, measles, mumps, and rubella (German Measles). I am old enough to remember stories of people who died from measles, men who were impotent from having mumps as adults, and people left blinded by rubella. Babies died or were damaged by their mothers contracting rubella while pregnant. These are not dusty history to me. These are real people I knew. While in grade school, a boy in the class below me died of scarlet fever.

Moving from anecdotes and memories, the statistics speak for themselves. Before widespread vaccination, measles was responsible for 2.6 million deaths a year. After the year 2000, when most children received the vaccination, deaths dropped by 75%. The measles vaccine has been called “the best buy in public health.” It is still a serious killer in countries with poor health care systems. There is no treatment for measles, but it is preventable.

Rubella kills and causes defect in unborn children, when contracted by a pregnant woman. Worldwide, there are 110,000 babies born with congenital defects from this cause each year. There is no treatment for rubella, but it is preventable.

Now, I am aware that there are articles abounding on the internet supposedly showing that cases of disease and death from these various causes has not declined at all. One such article claimed that doctors were simply mis-diagnosing other illnesses as measles, for example, because it was common, and that after the vaccine was introduced doctors stopped diagnosing it because they expected to see fewer cases. Of course, there are some doctors who might not be rigorous, but this outright assault on the ability of the medical profession to see the observable symptoms and confidently call measles, measles, is ridiculous. It’s similar to the arguments that the holocaust never happened just because very few people are alive who remember it.

The supposed links between vaccines and autism have been proven to be non-existent. The original study was completely fraudulent, and has been retracted. Subsequent, highly rigorous studies, have shown that there is no connection at all. Yet, a quarter of adults in the United States continue to believe there is a connection. We seem determined to believe lies just because we may not understand a complicated disorder.

Like parents in the 1950s who were given hope for a healthy future for their children by the Salk polio vaccine, I suspect that if someone could produce a vaccine against autism–the big scare of this generation–parents today would be eager to give it a try, saying “anything is better than what we are living through now.” (Let me add that a vaccine against autism is unlikely, if not an impossibility. Autism is a group of genetic disorders, not a communicable disease.)

Those who choose not to vaccinate their children (and I have some friends in this group), put everyone at risk. Pockets of outbreaks that occur are often associated with unvaccinated populations.

I hope and pray that as those of us with memories of life before child vaccinations die off, people will not abandon sound medical preventatives that have saved millions of lives, and millions of people from deformities and handicaps.

Photo of iron lungs from Wikipedia, Rancho Los Amigos Medical Center, Downey, California: public domain
Photo of children being immunized from Wikipedia, Department of the Interior: public domain
Photo of child with smallpox from CDC Public Health Image Library, James Hicks: public domain

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10 Comments

  1. Sonja
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