My mother came down with polio before Jonas Salk’s vaccine was introduced in 1954. My Guatemalan friend Alba Hernandez developed the paralyzing disease 23 years after the vaccine arrived in her country. At age 5, she developed a high fever and could not move her legs. Later, her mother sent her to an orphanage where the nuns told her the illness could have been prevented with shots.
“My mother should have taken better care of me and taken me to a clinic,” says Hernandez, 43, who navigates the cobblestone streets and steep curbs of Antigua in a wheelchair. “They didn’t love me enough, and I’m paying for their bad decision. I understand people’s fears, but vaccines can save your life.”
Public health officials worldwide agree on the need to make vaccines more accessible and launch social media campaigns that educate parents about vaccine efficacy while addressing their anxieties.
Public information programs should recruit respected community advocates to discuss vaccine safety with minority groups understandably wary given the history of testing on people of color, including the infamous Tuskegee medical experiments.
The most compelling “experts” may be the ones we hear from the least: the men and women who suffered life-threatening illness because they were denied vaccines as children.
Skepticism remains rampant.
A nationwide poll released earlier this month by researchers at Harvard, Northeastern, Rutgers and Northwestern universities found that only 52 percent of Black Americans say they are likely to seek a covid-19 vaccine when it becomes available.
Although polio has been eradicated in most of the world, in Pakistan and Afghanistan it remains endemic, in part because of an aggressive anti-vaccination campaign, according to the World Health Organization.
In some states in the U.S., the rate of immunization in children 5 months old and younger fell to 50 percent between March and May, due to fear of going to doctors during the covid-19 pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports.
“People don’t realize how bad not vaccinating your children can be,” said Paul Offit, a professor of pediatrics in the Department of Infectious Diseases at Children’s Hospital in Philadelphia. “Measles can kill you. Before 1963, two to three million people got measles each year, 50,000 were hospitalized and 500 died. I think we’re going to find out how bad it is in the winter months,” though he hopes wearing masks and social distancing will lessen the spread.
Kristen O’Meara of Chicago said she is filled with regret for not vaccinating her children from common childhood diseases. As a result, her entire family, including her 3-year-old and 5-year-old, came down with rotavirus, the leading cause of sometimes-deadly diarrhea among infants and young children before a vaccine was introduced in 2006, according to the CDC. O’Meara’s family endured what she describes as 10 days of crippling cramping.
“I am thankful it didn’t do lasting damage. You never know if your child will have a complication that is going to be lifelong,” she says.
She was not a dyed-in-the wool anti-vaxxer. She describes herself as a “baby-wearing, breastfeeding mom” who favored all things natural.
“Anti-vaxxers like to quote medical professionals who have gone rogue,” she says. “I thought maybe the person with the alternative point of view was right. It was analysis paralysis. I was afraid to vaccinate and afraid not to vaccinate. So my action was to take no action.”
Today, she says she is sympathetic to people who are suspicious of the CDC, the World Health Organization and “Big Pharma,” but she encourages people to follow the advice of leading virologists and epidemiologists who “eat, breath and live” vaccines. She says she will be first in line to get the coronavirus vaccine for her children.
Last year, the CDC reported 1,282 cases of measles in 31 states.
Joshua Nerius, a software product manager in Chicago, learned four years ago that his parents had not had him vaccinated for measles as a child, he told CNN. At 27, he was admitted to Northwestern Memorial Hospital with a high fever and a rash. He lost 25 pounds and it took him months to fully recover. He was angry, he said, that his parents were persuaded by anti-vaxxers.
Julia Lieblich is a scholar-in-residence at the Newberry Library in Chicago.