One afternoon in New Delhi, India, in early 1993, I hopped off a bus from Rajasthan and looked for cab to my hotel. That’s when I felt a tug on my pants. A young boy, perhaps 10, was crawling at my feet. His body was contorted from polio, with limbs thrusting in impossible directions. I was shaken. You see a lot of human suffering in India and other developing nations, including corpses. But it was this child, crippled for life by a preventable disease, who still haunts my memory.
I was born in America in 1964, so polio wasn’t something I was accustomed to seeing. An aggressive vaccination program, launched a decade earlier, had by that point nearly eliminated a disease that had infected millions, and had killed hundreds of thousands. My parents, who had grown up under the threat of polio, and who lost classmates to polio, could relax knowing neither of their children would ever suffer the contagion.
I belong to the most fortunate generation of all, and I owe this to my parents’ generation, aptly known as the Greatest Generation. After enduring an economic depression and marching off to a global war, they devoted their energies to seeing that their children would not suffer the hardships they did. And supporting vaccination programs was one of the ways they did this. Diseases that had been common for them, and frequently feared, were unknown to me and those in my age cohort. My parents had stories of childhood friends who succumbed to infectious diseases. I never experienced this as a child. I never knew the fear my parents did of a friend dying from a disease that could very well come for them next.
Polio was just one of many common childhood killers that Americans were leaving in the history books by the time I was born. No one I knew growing up had polio, smallpox, measles or rubella. I can recall one neighbor getting the mumps, and the odd case of whooping cough in my small school, but never a serious outbreak.
According to the National Institutes of Health, vaccines prevented 40 thousand American deaths in the second half of the 20th century, and 20 million infections with diseases that can cause permanent harm. Simply put, vaccines save lives. They’re like speed limits. Properly followed, they keep everyone safe. The science on this is overwhelmingly conclusive.
August is National Immunization Awareness Month, and in today’s Sundays section I have a lengthy article that includes input from Anne Zink, Alaska’s chief medical officer, and Matt Bobo, our immunization program manager. They’re on the frontlines of fighting vaccine-preventable diseases, and are intimately acquainted with the facts regarding vaccines, something rarely found in online discussions. I highly suggest reading their words.
And as Alaska’s rate of Covid infections surges upward and our hospitals are once again overflowing, I strongly recommend that anyone still hesitant about getting vaccinated for this disease, which has been upending our lives for a year-and-a-half, talk with their doctors and get vaccinated. More than 600,000 Americans have died from Covid-19, and nearly all of the deaths since vaccines became available were preventable. My whole family has been vaccinated without incident, and I know my parents would do likewise if they were still alive. They remembered having their communities turned upside down by infectious disease outbreaks. I suspect if those of us here now had experienced what my parents did as children, we wouldn’t be debating this point.
At the end of 2019 I returned to India for five weeks. I saw many amazing sights and a few painful things. What I didn’t see, and that I had seen several times on my previous visit, was children with polio. Thanks to a vaccination program spearheaded by Rotary Club, India, like America, is now polio free. I have contributed to this effort repeatedly, because I never want to see another child suffering like the one who crawled up to me so many years ago. And on this trip I didn’t.
Vaccines are safe and effective. They’re the single greatest medical advance yet known. But if we don’t use them, they won’t help us. Each person has to decide to not be a spreader of infectious diseases, and to not make poor decisions based on the misinformation that proliferates online. “Covid-19 is becoming a vaccine-preventable disease,” Dr. Zink told me. We have the means of ending this pandemic. Let’s find the will.
David James is a freelance writer who lives in Fairbanks.