Americans frightened to let their children outside, travel between cities and states restricted, public health officials imposing quarantines on homes where a highly contagious disease was diagnosed — sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
It could be a description of America today as the COVID-19 pandemic rages, but it’s actually a description of the U.S. in the 1940s during a polio outbreak. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, no cases of polio have originated in the U.S. since 1979 thanks to the development of a polio vaccine.
Dr. Ronda Azelton, with Family Practice and Obstetrics in Monett, said polio resembles COVID-19 in a few ways, and that’s why she and other doctors say vaccinating children is even more vital during the current health crisis.
“We know that polio is highly contagious,” Azelton said. “You didn’t know going into it how bad your outcome was going to be. Were you going to be the kid that died from it or the kid that just had to wear braces on his legs for the rest of his life? ... With COVID, you don’t know — are you going to be the person who ends up on the ventilator, or are you going to be the person who doesn’t have any symptoms?"
Researchers are working on a vaccine for COVID-19, but vaccines already in existence are preventing highly contagious diseases such as polio, mumps and meningitis.
Dr. Beth Garrett, pediatrician at the Freeman Children’s Clinic in Joplin, said vaccines are “part of the foundation for pediatrics and providing preventative care for kids.”
“Vaccines are always important, not only while we’re taking care of children during the forming years of life but these things that take care of kids when they leave our care and become adults,” she said. “They prevent the spread of other pandemics that used to kill children across the nation and around the world.”
Garrett said vaccines are even more important as the region faces a disease, COVID-19, for which there is no vaccine and few drugs that are thought to be effective.
“When you add something like COVID, I think it heightens our need to keep kids vaccinated,” she said. “Because we are already strained as a medical system, and if kids don’t get their vaccines and we start seeing vaccine-preventable illness resurge, then we strain our medical system more and we also end up with sick, sick kids — and we don’t need that right now.”
Garrett said vaccines have been so successful that many Americans have forgotten the days when a child’s death from disease was far more routine. She said her mother remembers the polio outbreaks of the mid-20th century.
“She was born in the early ’50s, and she remembers when she didn’t go to public pools and being worried about the iron lung," Garrett said. "We vaccinate for those things, and they don’t happen anymore. Part of the success of vaccines is that we vaccinate so well that we forget that our herd immunity protects us from those things, and we forget how awful these illnesses have been.”
The fading memory of childhood diseases prevented — and the spread of discredited science saying vaccines could cause some disease — has led to skepticism among some parents about whether they should vaccinate their kids.
Garrett and Azelton say they spend a lot of time talking to parents about the safety record of vaccines and how rare it is to have significant side effects. Garrett said the vast majority of reactions that people might have to vaccines are minor.
“There are rare side effects, but the chances of having a side effect from a vaccine is just astronomically low," she said. "I’ve been a pediatrician at Freeman for 11 years come August, and the biggest side effect I’ve seen from a vaccine is a little redness from around the injection site and some fever, so I really feel safe giving vaccines to patients.”
Azelton tells patients she’s comfortable that the risk of side effects is far less than the risks posed by the diseases that the vaccines prevent.
“I tell them that there have been lots of very good scientific studies on these that show that vaccines don’t cause autism,” Azelton said. “I tell them that, personally, I would much rather give my kid a shot and prevent a disease that they could die from.”
Garrett and Azelton both said their offices have made changes to keep people safe from the novel coronavirus, which can cause COVID-19.
“Your pediatrician’s office is a safe place to visit, whether it’s for a checkup and a vaccine or if it’s for acute care,” Garrett said. “We want you to stay on time with your vaccines because we don’t want vaccine-preventable illness to resurge when we’re already dealing with another pandemic."
Vaccinations are available to make sure children are ready for the start of school in Joplin in August.
Appointments at the Joplin Health Department are being spaced for safety. Anyone 2 and older should wear a mask when entering the building. Immunizations are available for the uninsured or underinsured as well as those with Medicaid or insurance from many area providers.