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Has Fear of Vaccines Made Us Vulnerable to Polio?

There is a growing anti-vaccine movement in the United States. Is that making us more vulnerable to polio? Hundreds may be infected in NY.

I am a private person. I rarely write about my personal life in our syndicated newspaper column or on this website, but today I will tell you that I had polio when I was a child. As a result, I spent weeks immobilized and in traction in the polio ward at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. I watched children all around me dying. This traumatic experience makes me disappointed with all the negative comments I have read about the COVID vaccine on our website and in the media. Even more worrisome, though, is the growing anti-vax movement in America. Has this opened the door to horrible diseases? Specifically, are we now more vulnerable to polio?

The Polio Story:

Most Americans have no idea what it’s like to suffer from polio, aka poliomyelitis. This is a disabling and life-threatening disease. It is caused by a virus (poliovirus). Like COVID, many people would not be aware that they caught the virus. Symptoms can be mild, a little like influenza. But the poliovirus can also invade the brain and spinal cord. That means it can paralyze the leg muscles, making it impossible to walk.

In more severe cases, the nerves and muscles that control speaking, swallowing and breathing can be affected. Perhaps you have seen pictures of children in iron lungs. Without that breathing support they would die.

Much has been written about long COVID. People experience overwhelming fatigue, joint and muscle pain, shortness of breath, brain fog, dizziness upon standing, neuropathy, sleep difficulties and depression to name just a few of the complaints we have read about.

Post polio syndrome symptoms include overwhelming fatigue, muscle weakness, brain fog, breathing problems, sleep disturbances and muscle and joint pain. Sound familiar?

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder!

There is one more thing. I still suffer from PTSD. Most people might read that as post-traumatic stress disorder. I call it post polio traumatic stress disorder.

As a child I was ripped away from my parents and put in an isolation ward. My parents could visit once a week for an hour. Even then, they could not come close to me. They could peer at me from a tiny window in the door at the end of the isolation ward.

The nurses would point to the two distraught faces in that window and tell me to wave to my parents. That was it! No physical contact. No comforting words. I could not move because I was in traction with ropes and pulleys stretching my legs. And everyone around me stayed far away and wore white gowns and masks. Imagine what that would be like as a three-year-old.

During my teenage years I had nightmares about my hospital experiences. During the day, though, I tried to suppress all memories of polio. I could not run as fast as my classmates, but I sure tried hard to keep up and overcome any handicaps. I refused to be vulnerable to polio or its aftermath. If I fell, I jumped right up and pretended that nothing had happened, even if I was in pain.

Today, I can walk and even play tennis, but my legs still show signs of nerve damage. And I live in fear of someday developing post polio syndrome. I am still vulnerable to polio. Most people are oblivious.

Could Polio Return?

In 1979 the US eradicated polio. This viral disease has been all but eliminated from most of the world. Pakistan and Afghanistan are the remaining exceptions.

Now, however, a case of paralyzing polio has been diagnosed in New York. The young adult affected had never been vaccinated.

Are Americans Vulnerable to Polio?

More worrisome than one case of paralyzing polio is the discovery that polio virus is in wastewater samples in neighboring New York counties. It has also been identified in samples taken from New York City. This suggests that the virus may be spreading in communities and in NYC. The State Health Commissioner of New York warned that hundreds of people could already be infected.

A surprising number of children and adults have not been vaccinated against polio, even though the shots are 99% effective in kids. Only 79% of young children in the state of New York have been vaccinated against polio. That is scary, but it may be due in part to COVID disrupting routine health care. However, in Rockland County, New York, the vaccination rate is roughly 60%. Are these kids vulnerable to polio? You bet!

The New York Health Commissioner is encouraging people who have not been vaccinated against polio to get their shots immediately. Are Americans so skeptical that they have given up on vaccinating against this devastating disease that can lead to disability and death?

We Are Skeptics Too!

Anyone who has read our work for the last 44 years knows that we have been tough on drug companies. We have also raised hard questions about the effectiveness of influenza vaccines at this link.  When we learned that lasting shoulder pain was a problem due to flu shots, we advised people about the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS)  (800-822-7967) and the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program (800-338-2382).

We are neither vaccine enthusiasts nor vaccine cynics. We seek data and do our best to report research objectively. But because I have had polio, I can tell you that vaccines save lives and prevent untold misery. Most vaccine skeptics never had to live with polio. Why are we vulnerable to polio in the 21st century?

The Polio Vaccine:

When Dr. Jonas Salk announced on April 12, 1955, that the polio vaccine was effective, parents rejoiced. That’s because the polio virus had been responsible for paralyzing or killing hundreds of thousands of children. Some people had to spend their lives in “iron lungs” because they could not breathe on their own. Imagine living your life inside a machine.

Dr. Salk’s heroic vaccine trial of 1954 included a million youngsters around the country. Prior to its development, parents would try to keep children inside and away from swimming pools during the summer for fear of the infection. Sometimes quarantines were imposed and travel between cities was restricted.

Within a few years after it became available, the polio vaccine had reduced infections to fewer than 6,000 annually. Life returned to normal and children were allowed to be children again.

Let’s Not Be Vulnerable to Polio Ever Again!

On August 11, 2022 Dr. Jose Romero of the CDC told CNN that the New York polio case is:

“…just the very, very tip of the iceberg.

“There are a number of individuals in the community that have been infected with poliovirus. They are shedding the virus. The spread is always a possibility because the spread is going to be silent.”

I hope Dr. Romero is wrong! I hope that that the man with paralyzing polio recovers completely and no one else is affected. I do not want any child to go through what I experienced so many years ago.

The doctors told my mother that I would need braces for my legs and that I would never walk normally. She massaged my legs daily for hours. It took me a long time before I could walk again. The experience left lasting scars, but I was one of the lucky ones. I survived.

A small favor please. Do you know someone who is anti-vaccines? Perhaps my story will change their minds. Please scroll to the top of the page and send this article to friends and family who are anti-vaxers. I do not want to see polio return!

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About the Author
Joe Graedon is a pharmacologist who has dedicated his career to making drug information understandable to consumers. His best-selling book, The People’s Pharmacy, was published in 1976 and led to a syndicated newspaper column, syndicated public radio show and web site. In 2006, Long Island University awarded him an honorary doctorate as “one of the country's leading drug experts for the consumer.”.
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