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How the Success of Vaccines Led to Less Vaccination / COMMENTARY

A crowd of people receives inactivated poliovirus vaccine (the Salk vaccine) in the high school gym at Protection, Kansas, in 1957. The small southwest Kansas town became the first in the nation to be fully-immunized against polio. Similar lines formed during the 1954 vaccine field trials. (Photo via March of Dimes Foundation)
A crowd of people receives inactivated poliovirus vaccine (the Salk vaccine) in the high school gym at Protection, Kansas, in 1957. The small southwest Kansas town became the first in the nation to be fully-immunized against polio. Similar lines formed during the 1954 vaccine field trials. (Photo via March of Dimes Foundation)

When's the last time you saw someone with measles, mumps or rubella? If you're under 60, chances are you've never seen anyone with these highly-contagious diseases. That's because, since the 1960s, vaccinations have all but eliminated them. Unfortunately, measles and other preventable diseases are now making a comeback. Commentator John Richard Schrock thinks he knows why.  

Commentator John Richard Schrock is professor emeritus at Emporia State University, where he once taught aspiring students how to become biology teachers. Dr. Schrock has also been a visiting teacher and lecturer in China since the mid-1970s. He lives in Emporia.

(Transcript, as edited for radio broadcast)

Our earliest memories are always memories sealed by emotions. It was 1952. And I can still recall the radio announcing that city parks and public swimming pools would be closed due to the polio epidemic. It had infected 52,000 victims, mostly children. My mother went down the street to visit a neighbor and help her with the Sister Kenny treatments for her little girl’s paralyzed legs.

And so the mothers marched. We joined others in leaving our porch light on, and we gave what little we could to the mother’s “March of Dimes” that funded the research.

When the Jonas Salk polio vaccine was finally released, everyone was relieved. I gladly took my shot, and later...a booster shot. My parents fears subsided -- even when the Cutter Lab released a bad batch of vaccine where the virus was not fully inactivated, and it caused some polio cases.
But we knew the terror of the polio epidemic and we had faith that the scientists would correct it, and indeed they did. Polio was soon eradicated from this continent. And heroic efforts are being made to wipe it out in the remote corners of the earth.

That had already happened with smallpox. Thanks to vaccination, the last case in the U.S. was in 1949. Worldwide vaccination and quarantine ended smallpox in the wild in the 1970s in Somalia, Africa. In 1976, I witnessed the deeply pock-marked face of a smallpox survivor in the streets of Macao. Now, I could understood the tremendous motivation of a population that witnessed smallpox -- so disfiguring and often fatal.

There are a narrow number of transmittable diseases that only infect humans and can be driven to extinction similar to smallpox and polio. Other agents are rapidly evolving and highly variable, like influenza. Some zoonotic diseases, such as rabies, are transmitted among wild animals, and we can’t vaccinate all of them too. But we do use vaccination to greatly reduce the human death rate and improve health.

Indeed, the great success of modern medicine is marked by the dramatic reduction in infectious diseases, brought about by antibiotics and vaccines. Today’s killers are now heart disease and cancer.

Measles was officially eradicated in the United States, but it is now back with a vengeance as the vaccination rate of children in some communities drops below 95 percent. And young medical doctors who had never witnessed a case of tetanus –lockjaw– were astounded when a boy in Oregon nearly died in intensive care, only to have the parents continue to forbid any future vaccination.

Education is a factor; America continues to provide virtually no human anatomy or physiology education to high school students, compared to all other developed countries.  And America has a vast wasteland of online misinformation that spreads anti-vax conspiracy theories.       
It is the irony of science, that it can be self-defeating. The success of science eliminates the very experience-base that led to the medical breakthroughs and the eradication of many infectious diseases.

That is what happens when there are no more iron-lung machines, no more childhood leg braces, no more children crippled from infantile paralysis -- when the terror of death or disfigurement from smallpox is no longer in anyone’s living memory. This is what happens when we have lost the experience-base to fight measles and whooping cough and tetanus.


Related: The small, southwest Kansas town of Protection was the first in the nation to be fully-immunized against polio, as KPR highlighted in this Kansas Trivia question from 2013.  

Schrock attended Indiana State University in Terre Haute, where tuition was $8 a semester hour in 1964, completing a bachelor's degree in biology teaching and a master's in science education. He began teaching in Kentucky before he graduated from I.S.U., and completed his degrees during summers. Schrock taught five years in Alexandria, Kentucky middle and high schools and two years at the I.S.U. Laboratory School before going overseas to teach at Hong Kong International School for three years. Schrock completed his Ph.D. in entomology working on insect ecology and systematics at the University of Kansas and, upon graduation, worked for the Association of Systematics Collections for three years. When the A.S.C. moved to Washington, DC, Schrock took the position at Emporia State University, directing biology teacher training. He was on the state biology committee and closely involved in the Kansas evolution debates of 1999. He writes a weekly Kansas newspaper column on education, produces public radio commentaries, and appears monthly on Kansas television.