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Australasian ScienceThe girl in the iron lung

I recently spent a few weeks on crutches because of a broken ankle, and on one of the visits to my doctor during the treatment I took the opportunity to have a vaccination against pneumonia. These reminded me of my earliest memory of being vaccinated.

Shortly after my twelfth birthday I was rushed to hospital to have my appendix removed. Back in those days it wasnít the keyhole job it is today so I had to spend a few days in the hospital to recuperate. Another thing about the olden days was that there was no gender separation, and one of the other patients in the childrenís ward at Hornsby Hospital was a girl about ten or eleven years old.

I can still remember what she looked like, even after all these years. She had a round face with very pink cheeks. Her hair was red, and even though it was cut short you could see that it had a curl in it. I can only remember her face and hair and not what the rest of her looked like because the rest of her was enclosed in a steel box. The steel box was an iron lung, and it was doing her breathing for her because she had been infected with polio. She was quite cheerful, which must have been difficult. I donít know what happened to her later and she may very well have been one of the lucky ones who through intensive rehabilitation was eventually able to survive outside the box, but at the time the general expectation was that once someone went into an iron lung they spent the rest of their life there.

I have a cousin who is a couple of years younger than me. One day when he was young he fell over, and when he got up he complained about how sore his leg was. His parents rushed him to the doctor and were given the good news that the pain was due to some muscle damage that he had sustained when he fell. His very best friend lived two streets away. A few days after Phillipís incident, Frank fell over, and when he got up he complained about how sore his leg was. His parents rushed him to the doctor and were given the bad news. It was polio. Frank died in 2012 after spending almost all of his life in a wheelchair.

My best friend in primary school was one of the lucky ones. He walked with a limp but he didnít need the leg callipers that were on at least one child in every class I was in from kindergarten onwards. I still remember how we had to make allowances in playground games for the kids who werenít quite as mobile as the rest of us. I also remember that an entire age cohort missed out on swimming lessons because of a fear that public swimming pools were places where polio could spread easily.

These were frightening times.

A couple of years before my appendix decided that it needed removing the vaccinators arrived at my school. All the kids who hadnít shown any signs of contracting polio (and even those who had) lined up for the shots. A nurse painted our arms with iodine and another one injected us from a stainless steel syringe. Many children cried, both before and after the injection. Some might even have fainted afterwards. Nobody objected. There were no exceptions, there were no conscientious objections. There was a universal feeling that this was something that had to be done to protect children from an incurable disease that came on suddenly and left death and disability behind.

Most people today have never seen a case of polio, and this includes doctors. That is why we have the luxury today of arguing about the value and safety of vaccines. Yes, there were people who objected to the polio vaccine when it was first introduced but they were treated with the ridicule they deserved, just as anti-vaccinators should be treated today.

An article of faith for anti-vaccination campaigners is that polio was never eradicated by vaccination but was just renamed. When you ask these people where the leg callipers and iron lungs are today they have no answer except more lies and obfuscation. They know the truth but their ideology does not allow them to admit it. Iíve seen the world that they want our children to live in and I donít want to go back there. All I need to remind me that they have to be ignored and treated with contempt is to remember a little girl who could still smile at a boy who, unlike her, could run, breathe and play games. Like any child should be able to do.

This article was published as the Naked Skeptic column in the April 2013 edition of Australasian Science
Australasian Science

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