When I was in second grade the vaccine for poliomyelitis was declared effective and safe, and a nationwide inoculation campaign began. Children were the first to get the vaccine because the disease was known as “infant paralysis” mainly affecting children.
This disease attacks the nerve cells and sometimes the central nervous system, often causing muscle wasting and paralysis and even death. Since 1900 there had been cycles of epidemics, each seeming to get stronger and more disastrous. It seemed to attack more during summer and I remember the panic as a child when several cases appeared in my home town. Most people recovered quickly from polio but some suffered temporary or even permanent paralysis or death.
One of our neighbors had a little boy who had contacted polio. He was five years old and could not walk. His parents could not afford expensive leg braces so the little guy crawled everywhere he went. He had a sister my age and I remember playing with his sister outside as he would try to keep up with us crawling behind. He would wear out the knees in his pants from crawling all over outside.
When my school announced that the children would be given the vaccine my parents and many others were not sure if this was safe. They were told that we would be injected with the polio vaccine. The idea was that they would take the polio virus, kill several strains of it and then inject the benign viruses into the bloodstream. The person’s immune system would create antibiodies to the virus and he/she would be able to resist future exposure to poliomyelitis.
My parents were afraid of the very idea of me being injected with the polio virus, even a benign form. The very idea of polio was frightening.
Besides our neighbor’s son who was crippled from polio, we also had a friend whose body was twisted from the polio and she walked with braces on her legs and using crutches.
We heard of people who had to be placed in an iron lung when their chest muscles would not work enough to help them breath.
After many long discussions they agreed to let me have the vaccine. On the day we were to be vaccinated a bus came to our school. We were taken down town to the civic center where there were doctors and nurses all lined up at tables and we walked through one at a time to get our shot.
I was terrified!
Just the thought of a shot was scary, but even more the realization that they were injecting the polio virus into my body. My parents explained to me that it was not a “live” virus and it would not give me polio. Still, I was scared. This was all a new thing.
What if they were wrong?
What if I could not walk like our little neighbor boy?
What if I ended up wearing leg braces and using crutches like our friend?
The vaccine at that time consisted of three shots given a few weeks apart. So, we were all scheduled to go back down town in a couple of weeks for the second shot.
However, the night after I was given the vaccine I began running a fever. I complained to my mother that my legs were hurting me and I had to lay down. Panic-stricken my mother called our family doctor. He believed that I was somehow allergic to the shot and told my parents I should not get the other two vaccines. He wrote a note telling the school I was not to participate in future vaccinations.
My parents and I worried over the next few years when we would hear of someone getting polio praying I would not come in contact with anyone who might pass the virus on to me.
Thankfully, that fear of polio was soon gone.
Following the vaccination of school children, there was a rapid decrease in cases of polio.
In 1955 there were 28,985
In 1956, 14,647
In 1957, 5,894
Because of widespread polio vaccination in this country, polio has been eliminated.
There is always danger of someone from another country bringing the polio vaccine with them when they travel to the USA. But if we keep our program of polio vaccination current, we can rest assured there will be no epidemics again. No children left crippled.
What is even more encouraging is that we have shared this vaccine with the world and today few countries have any current cases of polio.
I rejoice in that knowledge because many of these poorer countries do not have access to good medical care that patients of polio would need.
When I remember the fear we had of polio and all those who were crippled because of it – people I knew – the fear the very word “polio” brought to us –
and now I see that to my children and grandchildren it is only a word – something they read about –
I’m thankful to God for the knowledge He has given us to win the battle over this dreadful disease.
I pray it always remains just a word to future generations.