Lessons learned from the polio vaccine

Wendy SmithFarragut, The Farragut Insider

Daniel Wilson, a retired history professor from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, wishes he could’ve been vaccinated against polio.

“I was 5 and living in northern Wisconsin. Unfortunately, there was a shortage of the vaccine and only children going to school received the shots. I was too young and became infected with polio instead,” he said in a recent column in “The Morning Call.”

As a child, he spent a year in a body cast to straighten his spine. As an adult, he developed post-polio syndrome. He uses a scooter for mobility and a ventilator to help him breathe.

“All because of a missed vaccination 65 years ago.”

Yep, this is a column about vaccine hesitancy. I feel fortunate that I’ve had two Moderna vaccinations, along with the rest of my family, so I’m surprised that many of my friends and neighbors haven’t yet taken this step. It made me want to learn more about how people responded to other life-saving vaccines, like the one developed by Jonas Salk in 1955.

Polio plagued the U.S. in in late 1940s and early ‘50s like the bogeyman. Outbreaks of the disease, which disabled 35,000 people a year, mostly children, occurred during the summer months, and no one knew how it spread. During outbreaks, which were generally isolated to communities, people stayed home and businesses were jeopardized. Cases peaked in the U.S. in 1952 with approximately 60,000 children infected, resulting in over 3,000 deaths.

With the help of FDR’s March of Dimes campaign, Salk created a safe vaccine, and Americans responded with jubilation. But there was a hiccup. One manufacturer accidently used live polio in a batch of vaccines. As a result, 40,000 kids got polio and 10 died. Surely that halted all vaccinations, right?

Wrong. After the error was pinpointed, parents lined their kids back up for shots. Why did they do this, in spite of the danger? Because they understood and accepted that the risks of polio were greater than the risks of the vaccine.

A little over one year into the Covid-19 pandemic, there have been over 32 million reported cases and over 575,000 deaths. Even though science has come a long way since 1955, people are still unsure about the safety of the Covid vaccine.

To be fair, this vaccine rollout has also had a hiccup. After some cases of an extremely rare blood-clotting disorder were reported following the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, it was temporarily discontinued. Out of 6.8 million doses, six cases of the disorder were recorded, resulting in one death. Ten days later, the pause was lifted. Why? Because the risks of Covid are greater than the risks of the vaccine.

In some ways, it feels as if we’re out of the woods with the pandemic. Warm weather is here, cases are diminishing, and many of us are vaccinated. But not enough. New variants are hitting hard in other parts of the world and in our country. Those variants are striking younger people. According to the CDC, adults under 50 now account for the most hospitalized Covid-19 patients in the country — about 35% of all hospital admissions.

If vaccination rates drop off in East Tennessee, the same thing could happen here. Yes, it’s your choice to get vaccinated. But a missed vaccine could be something you regret later, for yourself or for someone close to you. Please consider vaccination against Covid-19.

Town of Farragut marketing and public relations coordinator Wendy Smith is your reliable Farragut insider.

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