Short Rows: Polio returns in an age of vaccine skepticism

Published 5:32 pm Friday, September 23, 2022

Polio’s back. We were terrified by the potential for contracting polio, as some of our friends did, back in the 1950s. Now, in our old age, we must once again face this crippling virus, this time a risk primarily to our grandchildren.

So far, it is quite isolated, but the virus has been found in a New York State wastewater treatment plant, and with that discovery, the potential for its spread has increased. The likelihood of spread is heightened by the current anti-vaccination movement in the United States. A declining number of children are being vaccinated against the crippling disease and that may be the path to a resurgence.

To be clear, there’s no great concern in our family. We are all firm believers in medical science, including the incredibly successful reduction or elimination of deadly childhood diseases through community vaccination. That trust in vaccination goes back to our parents. They grew up in the early 20th century, at a time when most families experienced the death of an infant or young child due to some then-incurable disease. 

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By the time we came along, a growing number of vaccines were being developed for a variety of diseases, and our parents wanted to prevent whatever childhood illnesses they could. We all received smallpox vaccinations and carried the upper-arm scars for most of our lives as something of a badge of honor. The end of school each year also meant a trip to the Health Department to get a typhoid vaccination. We couldn’t go swimming in the river or creek until we’d had one.

But polio was the big one. All of us in my generation had seen photographs of children our age confined to an “iron lung,” an early respirator that assisted in breathing when a severe case of polio paralyzed chest muscles. Patients, most of them children, could spend up to two weeks in one of these claustrophobic contraptions while their body was given time to at least partially heal from the disease. 

It was scary stuff, and we were right to be scared. In 1949, a polio outbreak infected nearly 50,000 people. At that time, the nation’s population was well under half what it is today.

During outbreaks, families avoided public swimming pools or other gathering places for fear of contracting the disease, which spread through human contact. And when a vaccine developed by Dr. Jonas Salk became available in 1955, our parents trotted us right down to the public clinics that were set up for mass vaccination. There was no resistance that I can recall. Polio had to go, and to get rid of it, we had to be vaccinated.

A few years later, an improved vaccine was developed by Albert Sabin, and we got back in line, this time to swallow a sugar cube infused with the vaccine. 

Polio cases in the U.S. plummeted as vaccination became widespread, and late in the 20th century, the disease was basically eradicated here. Since then, an occasional case has been imported from countries where there are lower rates of vaccination.

But now, it’s back, though not widespread, again brought here from another country. The reintroduction is occurring at a time when vaccination rates in this country have dipped significantly, especially since the politicization of COVID and the development of vaccines for that virus. Conspiracy theorists have trumpeted all kinds of claims, ranging from not totally illogical questions about the speed with which COVID vaccines were approved to the fruitcake variety, including fears that the government is implanting tracking devices when we receive a vaccination. 

Anti-vaccination movements are not new, of course. There was a 19th century movement in both England and the U.S. opposing smallpox vaccination. Back then, there were ministers who thought smallpox vaccination was un-Christian because it involved injection of an animal disease (cowpox) to produce immunity. Other people just generally distrusted government, and still others thought vaccination intruded on their individual freedom. Most of these concerns have been brought forward to modern times to fuel anti-vaccination movements today.

And the anti-vaxxers are having what I suppose they consider success. The current run of television public service announcements urging the public to receive whooping cough vaccination is just one example of how far from the margin of safety we have drifted.

Personally, I think our parents had the right attitude. Science doesn’t always come up with the right answer, but it’s far more likely to get there than is a religious or political zealot. And if we want to prevent a recurrence of polio, or for that matter, keep COVID more or less in check, most of us need to be vaccinated.


John Edwards is publisher emeritus of The Smithfield Times. His email address is