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The Homefront: Polio, mumps and smallpox — COVID’s history lesson

By D. Louise Brown - | Sep 21, 2021

D. Louise Brown

I was a young child when a nurse in a starched white hat offered me a sugar cube with pink liquid on it. I happily ate the cube. What child wouldn’t? But what child would understand the significance of that moment as she munched down a polio vaccine-laced sugar cube which inoculated her from a disease that was leaving thousands of others paralyzed or encased in body-length, respiration-inducing metal tubes called “iron lungs” — or simply dead?

I was old enough to know something terrible was happening. The word “polio” was spoken by my parents in hushed tones. I didn’t understand what it was, but their fear was evident. The seven children in my family gave my young parents seven reasons to worry. Other people in our smallish town were succumbing to the ravages of polio.

So the vaccine was celebrated when it became available. My family was vaccinated, that solemn pall was lifted and my parents no longer dwelt in fear. Although the calm returned, I wondered about a classmate who disappeared from school. Questions about her to my teacher were shuttled aside. I waited for her to come back, but she never did. I asked my mother if she knew why my friend was gone, but she feigned ignorance. I later learned she succumbed to polio — it was sobering news.

As I grew into adulthood, I met others who made it through the polio scourge, though not unscathed. One was a cherished friend who lived in a wheelchair because childhood polio paralyzed his legs. We met when both of us served on a city council. At the time, he was also a business owner, self-appointed activist for several causes, husband, father and one of the most perpetually cheerful people I ever knew. He overcame the odds but still paid a terrific price to a disease that was thwarted in millions of others’ lives with a simple sugar cube vaccine.

Smallpox was another vaccinated threat. Folks my age carry the scar on our upper arms as testament that widespread vaccination can eliminate a disease. Other childhood-threatening diseases included mumps, measles and rubella. Many of my siblings and I contracted mumps. In an era when doctors still made house calls, our family doctor visited often. We pulled through, but it was a painful, awful household pandemic. Fortunately, today’s MMR vaccine protects this generation’s youngsters from that.

I ponder these thoughts as I listen to people argue about whether to receive the COVID vaccine and wear masks. This horrific pandemic poured down on us during an election year — a most unfortunate “perfect storm.” Had it not been so gravely politicized, we might have come together, using our collective common sense instead of questioning and doubting this latest gift.

The polio vaccine era was not perfect, but the lives it saved made it worth it. I suspect that someday the same will be said of the COVID vaccine. Not now, not while the flames of disagreement, postulating and erroneous information are fanned. But in the future we will look back, puzzled why we couldn’t see the answers more clearly.

Meanwhile, the mask argument parallels the vaccine argument. For the record, each masked person who walks past me in a store or other crowded setting receives a quiet, heartfelt thank you from me for making this world safer. I could care less about their political position on the matter; I’m just grateful they’re keeping their germs to themselves. Perhaps it’s just for their own sakes, but every human being in the area is a fortunate beneficiary of their choice.

A history of a polio sugar cube, mumps memories and a smallpox scar puts me in the pro-vaccine and masks camp — a decision based on experience coupled with the realization that this “personal choice” is not isolated. We live as a society, so decisions about a disease that thrives only when it moves from one person to another are anything but personal. Stop that transfer and we stop the pandemic.

D. Louise Brown lives in Layton. She writes a biweekly column for the Standard-Examiner.

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