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Op-ed: The days before immunizations weren’t so good

By Joan Ogden

First Published May 09 2014 03:44 pm • Last Updated May 09 2014 03:45 pm

I have been reading about the decisions of parents to not immunize their children. I am old enough I remember the "good old days," before the majority of childhood immunizations.

I remember spending two weeks on the sofa in the living room, all curtains pulled, with sunglasses on, when I had measles, because even I knew at my tender age of under 4 that measles could make you blind. I didn’t know at that age that measles could also kill me.

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And I remember that when I got sick with measles, my mother packed up and went to stay at her parents’ home, because she was pregnant, and they could not be sure at the outset whether I had "just" measles or German measles, so my grandmother came to take care of me.

And I remember — only too well — contracting bulbar polio (the kind that paralyzes the respiratory and throat muscles) at age 7. I spent a week in our local hospital, and when the doctors told my parents I was dying, my mother called a friend in Boston to tell her.

Mom’s friend immediately sent her pediatrician down from Boston (a 50-mile one-way drive before freeways!), who had me transferred by ambulance to Children’s Hospital, where I spent two days in an iron lung. I remember both the ambulance ride and being in the iron lung. Ah, yes, the "good old days."

After two weeks in Children’s Hospital, during which time they had to teach me how to swallow, because polio had paralyzed those muscles, I was discharged home. I spent a couple of months recovering before joining my third-grade class. I was one of the lucky ones. Most with bulbar polio did not survive.

I had to have speech therapy, because so many of my speech muscles had been affected. And then there was relearning how to sneeze — that only took eight years. But as for relearning how to laugh? Oh, that took 10 years. For some things, simply "re-learning" could not help. Muscles were left permanently damaged. So if you see me at a water fountain, you will see me fill my mouth with water and then stand up in order to swallow, because my muscles have never recovered sufficiently to swallow without the help of gravity. And I have to be looking straight ahead in order to swallow, too.

But I have been one of the lucky ones. Some of the friends I made in the hospital were not as lucky as I, and left with withered legs or arms — muscles wasted — dependent on braces and crutches if they were lucky, a wheelchair, or permanent confinement to a bed. Regardless, for all of us who had polio, we all did (and do) daily exercises to keep what muscle function was left. It was great for learning self-discipline. And about one-quarter of my fellow polio survivors have developed "post-polio syndrome" — characterized by unremitting pain and muscle weakness — those affected muscles have just worn out. Ah, the "good old days" before immunizations.

And don’t get me started on chicken pox — the virus that keeps giving! If you had chicken pox (but not if you have had the vaccine to prevent it), later in life you have a one-in-four chance of getting shingles — an extremely painful rash that can lead to all sorts of other complications like blindness.

Of course there is now a vaccine to prevent shingles for those who never were immunized against chicken pox, but that wouldn’t be the "good old days" if you took advantage of it, would it.

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Joan Ogden is an actuary and health care consultant living in Salt Lake City.

Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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