Polio battle has lesson for current vaccination controversy

You will have to turn to the Baby Boomers to find people who remember what it was like when polio was the disease that scared people as much as COVID-19 does today. A contagious viral disease, polio carries dire symptoms. It starts with flu-like symptoms fever, sore throat, headache, vomiting, but also neck or back pain and stiffness, muscle weakness. It can advance to paralysis, wasting away of muscles, trouble breathing and death.

It was a disease that terrified parents and led to cancellation of school and public gatherings. Parents wouldn’t let their kids go and play with their friends, because nobody really knew how it was passed along.

Two versions of the polio vaccine were developed, the first in 1955, the second in 1960. People lined up for vaccination clinics to get their children protected. By 1957, the number of polio cases dropped in the U.S, from a peak of nearly 58,000 cases a year to 5,600 cases. By 1961, after the introduction of the oral Sabin vaccine in 1960, only 161 cases were reported in the U.S. Since 1979, there has been no polio in the U.S.

In 1985 a massive effort to eradicate polio from the world was begun. Today, there are only two countries where it continues to pop up — Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Efforts to immunize children in those countries are hampered, obviously, by war, but also by mistrust. Muslim leaders in many cases mistrusted the volunteers and health workes from the West, and they spread rumors that the polio vaccine would cause sterility in their children. It has taken massive education projects to overcome this reluctance.

Does that sound familiar to the reluctance many Americans feel toward the COVID-19 vaccine?

Given the chance the COVID-19 vaccine will do to that disease what the polio vaccine is doing to polio. Let’s give it that chance.


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