Clifton Jolley: Polio survivors have no patience for anti-vax foolishness

Even with two vaccines, it took years to eliminate polio. And those who survived it still suffer.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Gov. Spencer Cox talks about his plans to hopefully burn his mask by July 4th as he speaks at a news conference in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021.

“Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.”

— Voltaire

I’m not a good audience for those who question the safety or efficacy of vaccines currently available to guard against COVID-19 infection, because in 1952 — before a vaccine for polio was available — I was crippled. And, decades since, I am among the one third of us who in our mid-forties discovered we are suffering from post-polio syndrome, an untreatable degenerative condition characterized by pain, shortness of breath and increasing immobility causing many of us to reconsider the mixed blessing of survival.

Had I been able to postpone the disease for a couple of years to receive the Salk or Sabin vaccines, my life would have been entirely different. Although several years of therapy returned the use of my legs, the lifelong disability of surviving polio has been punctuated by gradually increasing immobility that is likely to return me from the cane I now use to a compromise more severe: a walker, then wheelchair.

Nevertheless, I’ve listened to the arguments against vaccination — the fictions (mostly) and the relatively modest (but real) side effects. But in spite of slight fevers and headaches, none have died from COVID-19 vaccination, as did a number of children from a batch of the Salk vaccine which — due to improper processing — afflicted 40,000 children with “abortive polio” (characterized by symptoms similar to current vaccination side effects), paralyzed 51 and killed five. Nevertheless, since no one knew whether having polio was protection against contracting it again (it was not, as there were discovered to be three variants), when the Salk vaccine was made available at Garvanza Elementary School, my parents had me stand in line. Because —as with COVID-19 — families as much as victims were caught in the arc of polio infection, and mine did not wish again to roll the dice.

Of those of us who were crippled by polio, about the same number are still alive as have died from COVID-19. And of the 500,000 polio survivors in the United States, 150,000 of us now suffer post-polio syndrome. I have corresponded with a cross-section of them, and none of us know of any of us who are anti-vaxxers. Because, as polio survivor and vaccine advocate Minda Dentler explains, we have experienced the preventable consequences. Not just of vaccines being unavailable, but of ourselves being unavailable to vaccination.

We see in COVID-19 a mirror image of the disease we survived: Although COVID-19 is most likely to debilitate or kill the elderly — as polio more afflicted the young — COVID-19 is believed likely to result in lifelong disability, as many “long-haulers” already are discovering.

The polio pandemic — through disciplined vaccination — has been eradicated throughout most of the world. And as a result, even anti-vaxxers are relatively safe in the U.S., which finally was declared “polio free” — in 1979, nearly 30 years after the polio vaccines went into worldwide distribution.

Dr. Anthony Fauci and other epidemiologists advise that until vaccines are available to the entire world, COVID-19 will continue to be a threat to all citizens of the world. And because of variants — five of which have been discovered in Houston, where the mask mandate was just discontinued throughout Texas — even the vaccinated will not be entirely safe.

Which is why when I recently saw Utah Gov. Spencer Cox giggling his way through a press conference, holding the mask he should have been wearing and chortling: “I’m not gonna be wearing this on the Fourth of July, and I’m gonna be in a parade somewhere,” I thought, “He never had polio … and he doesn’t know squat about how long pandemics hold on … or how long we have to hold on to defeat them for all of us.”

Clifton Jolley

Clifton Jolley, Ph.D., is president of Advent Communications, Ogden.