Imagine for a minute you are a young child. One day you wake up, get out of bed, and your legs are suddenly too weak to support you. The next day, you wake up, and the weakness has increased. Eventually, your muscles are so weak you are no longer able to stand upright.
This happened to my mother when she was only five years old. Instead of running, jumping and playing with friends, she was confined to a bed for over a decade. It’s hard to imagine, but this was my mother’s reality with polio. And with the latest anti-vaxx uprising, it could become a reality for kids once again.
Now a mother myself of two young sons, I’ve watched with horror as the anti-vaxx movement has swept the country and caused outbreaks of ancient diseases, most recently in Washington State, along with confirmed cases in ten other states this year alone. The public health crisis unfolding before our eyes hits particularly close to home for me. Not only do I want to protect my little boys and their future children with every fiber of my being, but my concern stretches to this young generation of innocent children. I have seen what these terrible diseases can do.
Polio, or poliomyelitis, is a paralyzing and potentially deadly infectious disease that most commonly affects children under the age of five. The virus spreads from person to person, typically through contaminated water. It can then attack the nervous system. In 1952, shortly after her fifth birthday, my mother, Vivian Poger Bell, contracted polio from a public swimming pool in Manhattan. Her case was severe. She spent six weeks in an iron lung, and the majority of her adolescence in a hospital bed slowly losing the ability to run, walk, along with all use of her arms. The polio left her with a severe case of scoliosis, and by the time she was a young teenager she was unable sit up on her own.
At age 15, she became a trial recipient of what was later known as Harrington Rods. She underwent a surgical procedure at Gaylord Hospital in Wallingford, CT to have the rods inserted into her back to straighten her spine, in the hopes that she would be able to sit upright. Walking was not an option the doctors even considered.
She spent an entire year on her stomach and back, when she was not working through grueling physical therapy.
My mother was a fighter, stronger than anyone would have ever known. She vowed to not only work hard to sit up, but she was going to walk out of the hospital. The doctors and nurses tried to temper her expectation, but she would not listen. And at the age of 16, after 18 months of living in the hospital, she walked out. This was such an enormous feat of perseverance, that her picture and story was featured in the newspaper.
Despite this unbelievable strength and determination, she lost an entire decade of her childhood to polio, a now entirely preventable disease. When other girls her age were dating and playing sports, she was relearning how to walk. After months and months of physical therapy, she was still left disabled and unable to use the muscles in her upper arms for the rest of her life, in addition to general instability and frailty in her mobility.
Unfortunately, my mother passed away when I was eight years old, so as an adult I feel the need to share her tale. Polio is a preventable, horrific disease – but if we blink, the threat could come back. Though the kids who are currently going unvaccinated can’t speak out, kids from history can.
This horrible childhood affliction has been eradicated in our country but could easily return if people continue not to vaccinate their children, just as we have seen from the resurgence of measles, a disease that was considered eliminated in our country less than 20 years ago. Its resurgence proves we are not immune to any disease.
Fortunately, great work is being done by unsung heroes to ensure children around the world do not suffer from this debilitating disease. Rotary Internationalhas been working to eradicate polio for more than 30 years. As a founding partner of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, Rotary has reduced polio cases by 99.9 percent since their first project to vaccinate children in the Philippines in 1979. They have helped immunize more than 2.5 billion children in 122 countries. So far, Rotary has contributed more than $1.8 billion toward eradicating the disease worldwide.
Today, polio remains endemic only in Afghanistan, Nigeria, and Pakistan. But it’s crucial to continue working to keep other countries polio-free. If all eradication efforts stopped today, within 10 years, polio could paralyze as many as 200,000 children each year. This figure includes children in the United States.
Before you even consider not vaccinating your children, please think of how you would feel if you had to watch your child languish away in bed as the years ticked by because you refused a simple shot when they were babies. These diseases could rob your child of their healthy childhoods and leave them disabled or brain damaged for the rest of their lives.
My mother, despite her hard work, still spent the rest of her life disabled. Polio left her without muscle use in her upper arms, and to this day I do not know how she was able to hold her two babies, chase after two active young girls, or achieve a successful career as a nurse, but she was a strong woman; she was determined to let nothing stop her from living the life she wanted, and nobody could set her limitations.
Other children like her, were not so fortunate to have the same fate. Many died or spent their lives confined to wheelchairs. Any parent I know would do anything to keep their children safe. Please, for the sake of your own children and others who cannot get vaccinated, vaccinate your children against these horrible preventable diseases. Vaccines are safe, effective and they save lives.
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