I was 1 year old in 1949 when polio struck my mother. As I got older and could understand why she was in a wheelchair, she told me about her time in the hospital — more than a year — most of it an iron lung. Late at night she would lie awake, listening to the rhythmic pumping of the iron lungs on her polio ward and to the whooping cries of babies with pertussis that echoed down the hospital’s corridors.

That scene of polio patients in iron lungs and babies with pertussis struggling to breathe was played out in hospitals across the country. In 1949, 42,000 cases of polio were reported in the U.S., along with nearly 70,000 cases of pertussis. There were also more than 600,000 cases of measles reported, though the actual number was probably more than 3 million since most measles cases were never reported to health departments.

In some ways my mother was one of the lucky ones from her polio ward: She left the hospital alive. And though she had reduced breathing capacity and permanent paralysis of both legs and one arm, she could still breathe on her own. Some of her ward mates went home in iron lungs; others died.

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When the Salk polio vaccine became available in 1955, my mother made sure my brother and I lined up to get it. And when the Sabin oral polio vaccine came along, we got that one, too. It’s not that my mother rushed us to the doctor for all the latest treatments. We were rarely in a doctor’s office. But she knew all too well the value of immunization.

I was 18 when my mother died from complications of polio. A year later, I was in an immunization line at boot camp. The military didn’t waste time trying to figure out what immunizations we recruits had previously received. We just got them all. When it came to immunization, the military and Mom saw eye to eye.

After leaving the military, I used my GI Bill benefits to go to college and medical school. By that time, widespread immunization had all but eliminated polio and pertussis in the United States, and the measles vaccine had been almost as effective. The authors of a 1985 article in the medical journal Pediatrics estimated that in the 20-year period since the measles vaccine had been introduced in the United States, it had prevented 52 million cases of measles; 17,400 cases of what was then called mental retardation, a complication of measles; and 5,200 deaths.

But other severe infections were still common. Doctors routinely saw children with bacterial meningitis and with epiglottitis, a frightening infection that can rapidly result in closure of the airway and suffocation. Thanks again to new vaccines, bacterial meningitis is rare in childhood and many recently trained doctors have never seen a case of childhood epiglottitis.

But the success of immunizations in the U.S., as well as in other developed countries, has had unintended consequences. Having never seen someone with polio or pertussis or meningitis, or had a loved one die from these diseases, many people no longer understand the value of vaccines, and some have even come to view them with suspicion. At best, such individuals see vaccines as having significant risk and little benefit. At worst, they regard them as a sinister plot forced on a naive public by misguided doctors and greedy drug companies. While it is true that everything we do in medicine has risk, including administering vaccines, there is nothing else we do that provides such an overwhelming benefit with so little harm.

I continue to be saddened when I see or read about a child who suffers or dies from a disease that could easily have been prevented by a routine immunization. I understand that in most cases their parents were just trying to do what they thought was best for their child. But with no personal experience with vaccine-preventable diseases, and exposed to ongoing misinformation campaigns by small groups of vaccine opponents who spread their erroneous claims on the internet and social media, they made the wrong choice.

I also understand what propels parents to blame immunizations for other conditions that strike their children, such as autism. In 1998, the Lancet published the now-infamous Wakefield study that claimed to have identified a link between the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine and autism. The study was subsequently determined to be fraudulent and based upon falsified data, and was eventually retracted by the journal. But the damage was done. And even though multiple subsequent studies have shown no link between autism and vaccines, and the Institute of Medicine and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have both gone on record stating that the evidence does not support such a link, some parents desperately searching for the cause of their child’s autism still blame vaccines. The connection seems to make sense: their child is vaccinated, and then later develops autism.

But autism and other conditions also emerge after a child has had breast milk or formula; after a child has ridden in a car seat; after a child has been exposed to televisions, smartphones, video games, and other electrical devices; and after a child has had a whole host of other experiences common to early childhood.

No matter how well-intentioned, blaming vaccines for autism and other unrelated conditions is like convicting the wrong person of a crime. Not only does it unfairly condemn the innocent, it hinders attempts to find the true culprit. As parents shy away from vaccination, they aid the reemergence of multiple potentially devastating and life-threatening infectious diseases like measles, pertussis, polio, meningitis, and encephalitis. And that puts at risk and harms the most vulnerable among us — babies too young to be vaccinated, children who don’t have a choice about vaccination, and those with conditions such as leukemia and other disorders that suppress the immune system.

I do my best to explain to parents the true value of vaccines and why immunizing their children is so important. But too often the message doesn’t get through. At those times, I wish my mother was with me. Maybe she could help them understand.

Fred Leonard, M.D., is a retired emergency and preventive medicine physician.

  • I was four when stricken with polio in 1947. There were no vaccines, and treatment was primitive. My left leg was paralyzed for three days. Then I felt some tingling and found I could move the leg a little. A day later I was walking again.

    That was a fairly typical case, with short duration and little or no long-term dysfunction. It is the rarer, more severe cases that get remembered and caused the great concerns.

  • Well written, thanks for sharing an interesting and historical view of the ongoing debate.
    Social media has sadly given people power to spread lies.

  • Simple solution is for ALL health insurance companies to drop coverage or refund to pay for any emergency costs associated with perfectly preventable diseases that can be stopped with a vaccine. Make parents 100% financially responsible for the dumb decision.

    • I totally agree. One of my late close relatives survived polio & was left with a short,withered ,weak leg. A family friend had it in both legs & used 2 crutches;When he got older he was bedridden because he developed post polio syndrome, a steady weakening of the muscles that were affected by polio. As the syndrome progressed he got weaker until finally he passed away. I also think that people who don’t vaccinate their kids should be arrested for child abuse and neglect.

  • I suspect that no amount of evidence or reasoned argument can penetrate closely-held anti-vaccine beliefs. There is so much to attribute this to: the inaccessibility of science to most people, negative experiences with the medical system, inferred causality, and little or no direct experience with the diseases we’ve been inoculated against. But there are other factors as well. One is the loss of a personal relationship with a physician who seemed to have each child’s well-being as his ultimate priority. He (back then, it was almost always a “he”) was readily available and had fewer time constraints. What he lacked in sophisticated diagnostics and access to a wealth of medications, he made up for in personal contact. When my father was diagnosed with polio in 1954, it was on the basis of of a home visit. In addition, doctors seemed to possess a degree of knowledge that was well beyond our grasp. I’m not sure there was any illusion that you knew your body better than your doctor did. Finally, besides home remedies, medicine was the only route to recovery from illness or injury. There were no potential alternatives or sources of information available to a wider public. Recent advances in medicine, the increased cost of services and pharmaceuticals, and the consolidation (and complexity) of healthcare delivery systems, combined with access to internet resources, both reliable and unreliable, have altered the doctor-patient relationship. There’s little in the way of relationship building that physicians can do in the time they’re allotted with patients, and when it comes to debunking myths and allaying suspicions, it’s hard to do more than relay the facts, even if with urgency. Meanwhile, popular expectations that doctors function as caregivers don’t seem to have kept up with the changes in medical practice, eroding trust. I sometimes wonder if misconceptions about medicine could better be dealt with by health educators and social workers who are more aligned with the communities patients come from, who have more time to establish relationships with individuals and local institutions, and who have received training in the kinds of communication skills needed to deal with fact-resistant misguided thinking. In the case of vaccinations, this could begin with prenatal care. Sadly, this is only one of many public health issues that physicians may not be able to address adequately in today’s medical culture.

  • My mother contracted polio at 9 months old in 1930. By the grace of god, did not require iron lung, how ever right side fusion of foot, internal paralysis, and a small right leg, leaving a limping impairment. She went with relatives to live in the country, for fresh air, away from the city. She passed away at 84, but in her sixties was diagnosed with post polio, and suffered greatly, losing balance, hand control, walking ability, eventually deploying and severe body pain, not to pretty! For a disease so highly preventable, I also believe an ounce of prevention, so did she.

  • Thank you Dr. Leonard! I grew up watching my grandmother hobble around on a shriveled, shortened leg from polio. She still worked in a cotton mill and raised 8 children. Strongest woman I ever met. Polio is a horrible, deadly disease. I would never want to see another child suffer or die from this disease. I am 72 years old and have never seen pertussis and hope I never do. I have seen asthmatic children struggle to breath and it is heartbreaking.
    We must remain committed to immunizing our children! We must continue to do all in our power to stop the spread of measles and other diseases that can take or maim our children!
    Ellen K. Riddle, RN, MN, APRN retired

  • Thank you so much for this article – I only wish a wider audience would see it. My maternal grandmother survived polio, but not without long term mobility impairment. My mother’s youngest sister spent the first year of her life raised by a variety of kind nurses, unable to leave the hospital not due to her own health, but because her mother couldn’t care for her. I very nearly died from bacterial meningitis at age 3, and have permanent hearing and balance deficits. This isn’t why I became a microbiologist, but it just adds to my exasperation when I hear people passing up protecting their children from these preventable diseases – and the life long impacts. Thanks again for taking the time to share your perspective in this article.

  • I had measles as a child, 3 or 4 and will do anything to help encourage parents to get their children immunized. Because of the measles I have had breathing problems, now COPD, all my life. My kidneys were damaged and so I can’t take certain meds and they often hurt. Luckily I am not on dialysis yet but have to be very aware of my kidneys in all medical and diet situations. My right eye was damaged by the high fever, 104. So my vision cannot be totally corrected. Ever.

  • Having had many of the diseases for which we now have immunizations I find myself increasingly saddened that any parent would opt to have their child suffer from the consequences of these diseases which I have also seen outside of the U.S. As a nurse I took care of these children and mourned the lingering effects on them, sometimes for the rest of their lives. These parents are not only foolish but negligent

  • I know people with polio, mumps. I have seen a diptheria throat. I have seen autistic kids who have more/higher degrees than I do. I’ve also heard autistic people and their feelings on people who think that death (which can occur from these diseases) and permanent maiming is preferable to autism. They’re angry, furious, with extremely good reason. I know those who can’t get vaccinated for medical reasons (cancer, HIV/AIDS, its not just babies too young).

    It is well past time that all “philosophical” and “personal” objections are removed, to include religious ones, and requirement of at least 2 doctors with proven testing showing that someone can’t get vaccinated. That would resolve those issues with those who feel they have the right to destroy the common good and those doctors who support these movements.

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