For me, it was a no-brainer.
When the Salk vaccine to protect against polio was first released, my son received his injection at age four. About ten days after that, the nursery school he attended took the children on a field trip to the Los Angeles Music Center. This was during the 1950s when passengers were not required to wear seatbelts, so the little darlings piled into the car packed in like sardines.
Approximately two weeks later, three of the nursery school children began exhibiting polio symptoms: fever, headache, neck stiffness, pain in the arms and legs, weakness, vomiting, PARALYSIS. The nursery school shut down. Not only did the children become infected, but they also passed the virus on to siblings and parents. One victim was a father who had been a dentist. He recovered for a while but was severely affected and could no longer pursue his occupation. He succumbed to the after-effects at an early age.
One day, I accompanied a nursery school mom to visit her son at Rancho Los Amigos, a facility in Southern California that accommodated a large number of iron lungs. For me, it was chilling to see children’s faces protruding from these frightening-looking tanks. For the parents, it must have been devastating.
Iron lungs helped patients breathe. They are now obsolete because world-wide polio has been almost eradicated. Today, ventilators are the go-to device for breathing assistance, especially common during this COVID-19 pandemic.
Meanwhile, our two nursery schoolteachers, who had been in such close contact with the children, felt especially vulnerable. After consulting with their doctors, they received large doses of gamma globulin. This was costly but health experts believed that gamma globulin boosted immune systems, and that might be one way to fight off this crippling disease. When the teachers submitted their medical bills to the nursery school parents, some parents balked at paying for the shots. I couldn’t believe it. These two women put their lives at risk in caring for our children. Why should any parent deny them this protection?
Even though my son had received the Salk vaccine less than ten days before the field trip, I believe that antibodies were already beginning to form in his body, and this spared him.
When I was growing up, poliomyelitis was the summer scourge, and no one could figure out how it was transmitted. Swimming pools were suspect because the numbers of infections rose during the summer. Consequently, public swimming pools shut down if one of the users came down with the disease.
At about 17, I met a boy a year or so older than me. I’ll call him Joe, and at that time he was on the rebound from a girlfriend named Betty. Joe and Betty had been childhood friends and during adolescence their friendship blossomed into romance. Now they had broken up.
Joe was a live wire, an identical twin with a dynamic personality. Not only that, but he and his brother sang together and often performed at social events. I fell for that, too. But not long after we began dating, Joe took a summer job as a counselor at a children’s camp. Unfortunately, several cases of polio broke out at the camp and everyone was placed under quarantine. Guess what? As fate would have it, Joe’s old girlfriend, Betty, was also a camp counselor at the same camp. During their confinement, their romance re-ignited, and he sent me the equivalent of a Dear John letter, and we would not be seeing each other again. I like to joke that after meeting me, Joe realized that Betty was the one for him. Eventually, they married.
I was crestfallen for a while, but not for too long. Yet whenever I think about polio, memories of my broken romance re-surface. More importantly, memories of the miracle accomplished by the Salk vaccine come to bear. That is why I was delighted to receive two doses of the Pfizer vaccine. After receiving each of the injections, I felt jubilant. Additionally, when my family recently celebrated Passover, a memorial to overcoming obstacles and enjoying freedom, we tied it to the COVID-19 vaccine. This vaccine has provided us with an opportunity for protection against the pandemic that has claimed more than half a million lives in the U.S. alone.
I am also enthusiastic about taking any other vaccines that have the power to protect me from flu, shingles, pneumonia, tetanus. And why not? I am a believer in science.
Norine Dresser is a folklorist who, as a mom, was equally positive when she learned that her four grandchildren had been vaccinated against mumps, measles, chicken pox. These were damaging, sometimes fatal, diseases of their parents’ childhoods. Thus they were spared.