Bearers of the great pandemics

I once heard: Pandemics produce one thing reliably – amnesia.

Unless, of course, you are the bearer of the disease.

Bob, 67, was born in London, England. When he was 2½ years old, he contracted polio. The ordeal lasted a few weeks; back then all doctors could do was “wait and see … what muscles come back.” He survived, but his legs were partially paralyzed.

At age 6, Bob was hospitalized (customary at the time) for rehabilitation. A year and a half later, he was able to walk out of the hospital with just one leg brace.

Ten years ago (54 years after the original polio), he developed post-polio syndrome and lost most strength in his legs. Bob now walks with two canes.

Polio destroys nerve cells. It attacks mostly children under 5; adults get it too, and a famous example is Franklin D. Roosevelt. Outbreaks used to arrive each summer. In a 1952 survey, Americans feared polio second to nuclear annihilation. Then vaccines changed everything.

Bob remembered finally getting a polio vaccine in the late 1950s (he could get polio again from a different strain). He didn’t hesitate. As a board member of the Ohio Polio Network, he said, “I’ve suffered an epidemic, but I’m glad that nobody has to suffer that.”

The year Bob contracted polio, 1955, happened to be the year the first polio vaccine became available in the U.S. It was developed by Dr. Jonas Salk at the University of Pittsburgh. Years later, at the University of Cincinnati, Dr. Albert Sabin developed another polio vaccine.

Thanks to these vaccines, the U.S. was declared polio-free by 1979. Globally polio cases went from 350,000 cases in 1988 to 33 cases in 2018.

Bob doesn’t understand the vaccine hesitancy in this country. “We had great faith in American medicine. Why is it we don’t have faith now? Nothing is changed. Science is better. We know so much. It’s nonsensical.”

I understand one concern – safety. Sure, vaccines have side effects, like everything else doctors do in medicine. Drugs, X-rays, surgery all have side effects. Safety in medicine is not black-and-white, 100% or nothing. Safety carefully weighs risk against benefits.

Side effects associated with vaccines are usually minor: redness and soreness at the injection site, muscle ache, fatigue, low-grade fever. This temporary discomfort is our immune system telling us, “Hey, thanks for the heads-up. I can identify the enemy, and I’m gearing up for the real fight.” Serious side effects like nasty allergic reactions are rare.

No, we don’t know everything about the COVID-19 vaccines – but we will. What we do know: They’ve exceeded expectations, are quite safe, prevent mild and severe COVID cases, and, hopefully, will save lives, lots of lives.

In the U.S., vaccines have successfully eradicated smallpox (1949), measles (2000), rubella (2004), and diphtheria (2012). Given time, more diseases will be on that list.   

Salk never patented his vaccine. And I’ll never forget what he said when asked why: “Can you patent the sun?”

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Volume 12, Issue 24, Posted 9:54 AM, 12.15.2020