A shot in the dark

By: Alison Dunn Aug 03, 2010
  Editorial

Have you ever met someone who had polio?

You may not have – polio has been eradicated in North America since the advent of the polio vaccine. But it wasn't all that long ago polio was still a very real threat to Canadians.

My father-in-law was one of those people. He contracted polio at age 30, before he was married to my mother-in-law. He was one of the lucky ones – he survived – but the disease did some lasting damage. He spent months in the hospital in agonizing pain, and when it was over, he had to re-learn how to walk, use his hands, use his legs, and more. He did it all incredibly, and went on to a successful career and fathered two great children. But the polio left its mark on him permanently.

In case you don't know a lot about polio, it's actually a viral infectious disease that can spread quickly from person to person. It enters the central nervous system, infecting and destroying motor neurons, leading to muscle weakness and paralysis.

My father-in-law has virtually no tricep muscles in one arm and severely weakened legs. After he recovered, he was unable to do many of the physical activities he had previously enjoyed, like playing baseball or competing in judo. Today he has difficulty walking and cannot raise his arm very high. Now that he is in his 80s he uses a wheelchair from time to time, as the effects of the polio on his aging body have robbed him of much of his strength (but luckily none of his remarkable inner fortitude).

If you had a chance to spare your child that same fate, would you take it? I know I would. Luckily for us, a polio vaccine was created in the 1950s that drastically reduced the number of cases, particularly in first-world countries. Even now, UNICEF is working to bring the vaccine to third world countries, which could eradicate the disease globally.

That's not the only disease we can prevent. Measles, mumps, rubella, some types of meningitis – there are vaccines available for all these diseases. But many parents today are opting not to vaccinate their children against some of these conditions. Why?

The answer is partially because of a 1998 study in Britain that claimed to have found a link between the measles/mumps/rubella vaccine (known as the MMR) and rising rates of autism. A number of people – including celebrity Jenny McCarthy – started to speak out about vaccinations. Many avoided vaccinating their children in the attempt to prevent autism and autism-spectrum disorders.

Then there was a rise in diseases such as mumps in Atlantic Canada. Many people started to wonder: which is worse? Having a child with autism, or contracting one of those diseases? (If you're wondering, mumps causes painful swelling in the neck and infertility in males.)

Earlier this year, the medical journal in Britain that published the original findings of the link between vaccines and autism retracted the controversial study. The journal The Lancet, found that "it has become clear that several elements of the 1998 paper by [original study author Dr. Andrew] Wakefield … are incorrect."

What's the right answer for parents? I'm not here to make that decision for you. But it's not a decision to take lightly. I urge you to do the research and speak to your family doctor before deciding. You really have to weigh the risks and benefits of the vaccine, especially in light of subsequent studies that found no link between the two. (To learn more about which vaccinations your children need, be sure to read "Needle knowledge" this week on Primacy Life.)

My husband and I chose to vaccinate our children, and that is a decision we do not regret for one second. No matter what the future holds, we can at least spare them some of the pain their grandfather had to endure. And I know their grandfather agrees with that.

A journalist with more than 10 years experience, Alison’s work has appeared in a number of top Canadian publications, including glow, Oxygen, Canadian Running and more. She is the former editor of a number of well-respected Canadian and American trade journals and recipient of a Kenneth R. Wilson Gold Award of Excellence in feature article writing. She is a part-time faculty member at Sheridan College’s journalism department, as well as an avid runner and fitness enthusiast.