Witnessing the legacy of polio shows urgency of childhood vaccinations for Alaska

The insufficiently vaccinated could see the return of diseases people fought to eradicate because they watched friends die from them

February 28, 2023 6:03 pm
A schoolgirl receives a polio vaccine in Uttar Pradesh, India, in December 2012. (Photo by Alan Janssen/CDC)

A schoolgirl receives a polio vaccine in Uttar Pradesh, India, in December 2012. Commentary writer David A. James witnessed children with polio in India in 1992, but the country was declared polio-free in 2014. (Photo by Alan Janssen/CDC)

The first time I saw a child physically marred by polio was in November of 1992 on a street in India. A boy no more than 8, using badly scarred elbows because his hands were unusable, dragged his limp lower torso towards me across the filthy sidewalk, his uncontrolled legs twisted so far askew that they hardly appeared to be legs at all. He was begging, because that was the life available to him. And given the absence of any means of reversing polio’s damage, the only life he would ever likely know. He was one of numerous children I encountered that winter whose bodies had been contorted beyond recognition by polio. It’s something most Americans never see, but those who have never forget.  

I was born in America in the early 1960s, less than a decade after our nation’s last major polio epidemic, which left thousands dead and hundreds of thousands physically impaired for life. It only ended when the polio vaccine was discovered and rapidly administered. My parents, part of the Greatest Generation, wasted no time sparing their children from a virus that had haunted their childhoods and killed schoolmates. 

They were successful. By the time I was old enough to understand what polio is, I had no reason to fear it. I only knew polio through the stories of older Americans, including surviving victims, and later, through my travels. 

Frighteningly, I now wonder if I will see children with polio in America, something I never considered possible until recently. This is due to our country’s declining childhood vaccination rates. As fewer kids are immunized, the possibility of polio and other forgotten illnesses returning increases. Diseases capable of permanently maiming and even killing them. 

The generally accepted number of vaccinated people in a population needed to achieve herd immunity from polio, thus preventing serious outbreaks, is 80%. Fortunately well over that many Americans are vaccinated. The likelihood of a national epidemic is minimal. There are areas of the country, however, as well as population subsets, where that number is far below 80%. If polio reaches these communities, it could rapidly spread within them.

One such population is Alaska’s children. A recent report shows merely 52% of those aged 19 to 35 months are up to date on their vaccinations. As these children grow and interact with each other, they will spread viruses amongst themselves. For the 48% who are insufficiently vaccinated, these could include diseases my parents’ generation fought to eradicate because they grew up watching friends die from them.

The sole reason America has been spared polio epidemics for nearly seven decades is immunization. Without vaccines, polio, still endemic in the world, will find victims in our country. Last summer an unvaccinated adult New York resident developed polio that paralyzed his legs. That case was contracted overseas, but weeks later, poliovirus was detected in New York state wastewater. Poliovirus remains present in America. And an increasing number of children are not being vaccinated against it.

Parents have declined to vaccinate their children for numerous reasons, including the astonishing success of immunizations. Most American adults haven’t seen the harm that diseases we vaccinate against can do to children. Others simply postponed routine medical care during the pandemic. And disinformation spread online by anti-vaccination activists has deceived countless well-meaning parents into distrusting vaccines. They sincerely believe they are doing what is best for their children.

I wish those parents could have seen that tiny boy’s mangled body writhing upon a filthy street in India. Thirty years later, the memory still haunts me.

The Rotary Club’s End Polio Now campaign has nearly consigned polio to the history books. I contribute, and encourage others to do likewise. Through Rotary’s efforts at vaccinating millions, India was declared polio-free in 2014. Early in 2020, just before the pandemic, I made a return trip. India had made enormous advancements during the decades since my first visit, bettering the lives of its citizens. But for me, the most heartening development was this: in that densely populated nation, I did not encounter a single child disfigured by polio. 

Until it is exterminated, however, polio remains a threat. By refusing vaccines, misguided parents not only jeopardize their children’s health, they risk helping this disease rebound globally, endangering all who are unprotected, both here and abroad. Don’t let America and Alaska become places where children spread polio and are sickened, physically disabled, and sometimes killed by it. It would be senseless and preventable. Vaccinate them. 


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David A. James
David A. James

David A. James is a freelance writer in Fairbanks and the editor of "Writing on the Edge: An Anthology of Contemporary Alaskan Stories."