I read this story by JoNel Aleccia last weekend, and it still spooks me:
Martha Ann Lillard, now 65, has spent most of the past six decades inside an 800-pound machine that helps her breathe. News this month that at least 13 children have been paralyzed by a resurgence of polio in Syria — where the disease had been eradicated since 1999 — filled her with sadness and dread, she told NBC News. At least four additional cases have been confirmed in the country, the World Health Organization said Tuesday.
“If my mother would have had the opportunity to give me the vaccine, she would have done that,” says Lillard, who was a kindergartner in 1953 when she woke up with a sore throat that quickly progressed to something much worse — a life-threatening infection with poliovirus.
“To let somebody go through what I went through and what other children went through. What if people had to do that again? It would be just unbelievable.”
With polio still endemic in countries like Afganistan, Pakistan, and Nigeria — along with the recent polio outbreak in Syria (which threatens to spread to Europe, where refugees from the civil war flock) — Lillard offers one, succinct message:
“I think the word is to get your child vaccinated,” she said. “Why would we let somebody have to go back through that again?”
The answer, says Michael Specter, lies in human nature: we forget how bad things really were in the pre-immunization days:
Why do people refuse to vaccinate their children against measles or whooping cough? In many cases, because they have never seen measles and have no idea what it might do. (For perspective, more than a hundred and fifty thousand people died of measles in the developing world last year.)
Aleccia reviews the history of paralytic poliomyelitis for us:
The first known outbreak of polio in the U.S. was in 1894 in Vermont, but it’s the epidemics in the 1950s that scarred the nation. In 1952, a record 57,628 cases of polio were reported in the U.S., and between 13,000 and 20,000 people a year were left paralyzed, records show.
Poliomyelitis is a viral infection of the spinal cord that mainly affects young children. The virus is transmitted through contaminated food and water. Most people who are infected develop no symptoms and don’t even know they’ve got it. But in about 1 in 200 cases, the virus destroys the nerve cells that activate muscles, causing irreversible paralysis, usually in the legs. It can paralyze breathing muscles, too, sometimes causing death.
Sixty years, lived mostly in an iron lung. Can you imagine that?