I remember hearing the hushed conversation between my parents when I was about five or six: “…daughter was rushed to the hospital last night in an ambulance…polio…now in an iron lung.” I knew that I was not supposed to hear the conversation, so did not ask questions.
It was 1947 or 8 and the country was in the midst of a polio epidemic. If I was awaken in the night by a siren, I worried that it was someone else being rushed to the hospital with polio.
There were posters in public buildings promoting the work of the March of Dimes with pictures of children wearing braces and using crutches.
At some point I saw a picture of a child using an iron lung.
It was a scary time. The Salk polio vaccine was not developed and available until 1957. I didn’t receive the vaccination until 1961 as I was preparing to spend my junior year in college in Hong Kong.
I began to think about childhood illnesses and vaccines last winter after the measles outbreak at Disneyland, where the majority of children infected had not been vaccinated. Since the theory that vaccinations were linked to autism had long been disproven, I wondered why parents would subject their children to serious diseases. To me who had experienced measles first hand, vaccines were one of the miracles of modern medicine.
My first serious childhood illness was Scarlet Fever, which I now know comes from a certain strain of the streptococcus virus. I contracted it when I was almost four. In addition to the rash, it settled in my tonsils and I was confined to my bed for three weeks. According to my mother’s notes, all of my paper toys had to be disposed of afterwards.
About the time of the hushed polio conversation, I came down with measles. About the time I recovered, my sister Chris came down with them. Our poor mother! When I was well enough to go outside, I still had to stay in the yard and not play with my friends since our house had a quarantine sign on the front door.
I came down with chicken pox when I was 9 and a half and remember having to stay home from school for about 2 weeks and being doused with calamine lotion to control the itching. Children were not allowed to return to school until all of the scabs had fallen off.
BJ, my oldest son, born in 1967, came along at the right time. The measles vaccine was developed in 1963, so he was immunized against measles and received his polio vaccine before he started school.
He came down with mumps when he was almost one. The mumps vaccine had just been released. It was too late for him; however, my husband and I were among the first adults to receive the shot since neither of us had contracted it as children.
BJ caught the chicken pox after my husband’s mother had shingles. Unfortunately, for my mother, he did not break out until he was visiting her in California during spring break. It was a light case; however, Mom had to play nurse-maid rather than doing fun activities. He still had some scabs when it was time for him to fly home. Mom solved the problem by purchasing a turtleneck t-shirt from him to wear on the plane.
I got my pay back in 1981 when my niece came down with chickenpox while she and her parents were visiting me in Washington.
And a few years later, my younger children also got the chickenpox. The vaccination for that childhood illness was not developed until 1995.
Dr. Lance Chilton, an Albuquerque pediatrician who is a member of the Section on Senior Members of the American Academy of Pediatrics (SOSM), recently focused his weekly column in the Albuquerque Journal on remembering the days before vaccines. In response to the Disneyland measles epidemic, SOSM gathered stories of diseases that pediatricians generally don’t see anymore.
He wrote, “Like others growing up in the polio era, I had friends that were infected and died or who were paralyzed for life.”
One of his colleagues wrote “For those of us who lived those days, and saw the specter of death on far too many children, we continue to be grateful for the amazing role vaccines have had in the protection of all our children.”
In 2015, the World Health Organization announced that one strain of poliovirus has been eradicated from the world. It and smallpox have been taken off the list of infectious diseases – both thanks to immunization.
While there have been amazing advances in medicine during my lifetime, I am particularly grateful for the development of vaccines to prevent childhood diseases.