By Chris Barts
I challenge any reader of this column to go into a hospital and find an iron lung in actual use. Yes, they do exist, and they are still used, even though they seem like relics from the era of the New Deal and Fireside Chats. For those readers who do not know what an iron lung is, I can't blame you. Huge cylinders that help a person breathe by use of changing air pressure aren't exactly common anymore. They got used in the days when polio, the scourge of the globe, killer of babies and paralyzer of all, was rampant. One of our presidents, Franklin Roosevelt, was struck down by polio, confining him to a wheelchair until his death in 1945. Polio was one of the dread diseases of this century.
Note that I said "was." Polio has been conquered in the civilized world, due almost wholly to one advance: The polio vaccine. Polio is all but dead worldwide, thanks to the efforts of groups like the Peace Corps in spreading the vaccine. All it takes is one pinprick to confirm immunity. One pinprick buys a life free of iron lungs and polio-caused death. Pretty good deal, I'd say. Polio isn't the only disease fought this way, not by far. Smallpox, another deadly disease, is extinct save in two refrigerated vials under lock and key. Again thanks to vaccines.
But not everyone uses vaccines, and not only the people who refuse for religious reasons. People refuse vaccines for medical reasons as well, claiming vaccines cause various diseases. Proof, of course, is lacking, but emotions are strong, and rhetoric can gloss over a lack of facts. They often suffer from a kind of selective amnesia, conveniently forgetting all of the vaccines they had without incident, and focus on the one that happened to be followed by a mild bout of sniffles or a small ache. Parents, a protective group anyway and often woefully under-informed, latch onto any idea that their child's health might be in some kind of danger, doing their child immeasurable harm by withholding a potentially lifesaving treatment. This must stop, and the best way to stop it is education. It always seems to be.
The fact is, we are tremendously healthier and happier because of vaccines. Vaccines, like any valid medicine or treatment, must all go through rigorous testing to prove them useful and safe. The vaccines given by a physician or a volunteer are, above all else, safe. They are also very effective, as the reduced number of infectious diseases even since the middle of the century has proven. And they are also cheap, proving that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Or, in the case of an iron lung, around a ton.
Ignorance is often a killer, more virulent than the flu and more dangerous than AIDS. But the ignorance of the parent should never harm the child. That's just common sense, and it's one of the reasons vaccines are required for school. Not to mention life.