Letter to the editor: Anti-vax beliefs are not new

I am writing in response to Claire Corkins’ “Ways of Seeing” article and to Alden Harwood’s letter to the editor concerning vaccinations. I am of the polio generation, and I have known people who got it. I am not an antivaxxer. I am writing only to say that there was indeed vaccine hesitancy back in those days. An article from May at the NPR website reveals that Franklin Roosevelt (himself a polio survivor) launched the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, which later evolved into the March of Dimes. A years-long campaign of information and donations to the effort of eradicating polio made the difference in Americans’ attitudes.

Along the way, however, vaccine-development mistakes were made, leading to deaths among children who were injected with a vaccine accidentally containing live virus. In 1955, for instance, insufficiently killed virus in the vaccine from a lab in Berkeley, California, produced infection in 200 children; many were paralyzed, and several died. Stops and starts in the rollout followed.

Jonas Salk and Albert Sabine were the two famous polio vaccine developers — of the “killed” virus and “live” virus versions, respectively. People were indeed cautious about that live virus version, for reasons related to those accidental deaths, among other concerns. There was most certainly parental consent involved. My mother always instructed me that I and not anyone else was in charge of my health decisions. She would not allow me to have the Sabine oral vaccine (via sugar cube). She insisted that I have the killed virus. Live virus sometimes became strong enough to cause disease.

The Salk killed-type vaccine (inactivated polio vaccine, or IPV) has replaced the live type in the United States. In 1996 the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices made the recommendation that the US use IPV, and by 2000 IPV had replaced the oral version of the vaccine for the routine prevention of polio. No vaccine-associated paralysis has since been reported. Salk was awarded the Nobel Prize. There is always room for serious consideration of the facts and informed consent.

Marcia Merryman-Means


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