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The home for VPR's coverage of health and health industry issues affecting the state of Vermont.

Henningsen: Vaccination Amnesia

People don’t vaccinate their children for many reasons: they worry about what’s in vaccines, don’t trust corporations that make them; fear long-term effects; believe government shouldn’t interfere with personal choice; and think their kids are protected if most others are vaccinated.But another reason may be that most Americans have no memory of what things were like before vaccines: when whooping cough, scarlet fever, diphtheria, typhoid, mumps, polio, and measles were major killers. Measles, for example, was one of the diseases central to the destruction of almost 90% of North America’s Native American population in the half-century after European contact.

We don’t hear much about these maladies now and until recently haven’t had to worry about them – thanks to the impact of massive public health efforts so successful they allowed us to forget why vaccination is necessary.

But sixty or seventy years ago, things were quite different.

The fearsome killer then was polio. The first American polio epidemic occurred here in Vermont in 1894 and for the next sixty years this terrifying disease swept the nation; striking without warning, with devastating effect. The worst outbreak, in 1952, afflicted almost 60,000 people. More than 3000 died; some 21,000 were left paralyzed; dependent on wheelchairs, crutches, or leg braces supporting lifeless limbs. Anyone who grew up with polio survivors – as I did – will never forget the blasted lives and early deaths that were consequences of living through the disease itself.

When the first polio vaccine appeared, in 1955, adults scrambled to vaccinate their children. Schools often led the effort and few questioned the decision. Grandparents who’d lost siblings to childhood diseases early in the century and parents who’d had the same experience during the Great Depression welcomed vaccinations which would prevent the searing anguish they’d experienced.

By 1961, the country had fewer than 200 polio cases. Today it’s been virtually eradicated here. Ironically, successes like this helped us develop “vaccination amnesia”, forgetting the past and regarding diseases like polio and measles as distant and unlikely threats; not clear and present dangers we’re keeping at bay.

There’s an opportunity here for historians like me to repeat Santayana’s tired phrase about those who don’t remember the past having to repeat it. Frankly, that’s not entirely true: what we too often learn from the past is how to make new mistakes.

And here we go again.

Vic Henningsen is a teacher and historian.
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