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Nearly 80 years worth of vaccines and all were apolitical — until now. A personal history | COMMENTARY

In this April 1955 file photo, first and second-graders at St. Vibiana's school are inoculated against polio with the Salk vaccine in Los Angeles. Tens of millions of today's older Americans lived through the epidemic; polio was ultimately eradicated through vaccination. (AP Photo, File)
In this April 1955 file photo, first and second-graders at St. Vibiana's school are inoculated against polio with the Salk vaccine in Los Angeles. Tens of millions of today's older Americans lived through the epidemic; polio was ultimately eradicated through vaccination. (AP Photo, File) (AP)

In the late 1980s, on a school day in early March at Pikesville High School in Baltimore County, classes were suspended for a day. The entire student body was sent to the gymnasium and lined up. A student at the school had recently returned from a trip abroad and had come down with the measles. The health department acted quickly to stave off an epidemic by deciding on a mass vaccination of the entire student body.

I was a math teacher at Pikesville at the time, and I was stationed in the gym to help keep the lines moving and facilitate the process. The health professionals set up a series of vaccination tables, and, without incident, the approximately 1,000 students were quickly and efficiently vaccinated. All of this was done with a minimum of political turmoil.

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To my knowledge, none of the students subsequently came down with the measles. In fact, only one person out of the entire staff and student body came down with the measles. That person was me. I woke up two mornings later covered in red blotches and feeling very ill. The student at Pikesville High who had the measles was in my math class, and it seems that while I was assisting in the vaccination, I was incubating the disease. The health department actually sent my children’s pediatrician to my house to verify that I had the measles. It was the only time that our pediatrician ever made a house call.

As a child in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s, I remember the polio outbreak. Like parents all over the country, my mother was frightened that I would come down with polio. She felt I would be safer at a summer camp in New Hampshire. One summer, when I was about seven or eight, a camper at the camp actually got polio and was rushed to a Boston hospital, where he later died of the disease. Parents of children attending the camp went into “panic mode.” Many of them jumped into their cars immediately and drove the 12 hours from Baltimore to New Hampshire to snatch their children away from the camp. My own parents, who were already in the area on vacation, packed me into our family car and drove me home.

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During the drive home I was not allowed to get out of the car in Connecticut, since that state had a higher than average rate of polio infections. The car was stopped just before we got to the Connecticut border, and I was prompted to go to the bathroom. The next opportunity would not come until we crossed out of Connecticut into New York. Such was the fear of nervous parents, that artificial state boundaries could lessen or enhance the chance of getting the disease.

A few years later, the Salk polio vaccine was developed, and my parents took me to our doctor for a shot as soon as it became available. I was used to receiving vaccinations, since every year before going to summer camp I had been regularly getting vaccines for tetanus, typhoid and other diseases. They were mandated for attendance at summer camps. To my knowledge, there was very little resistance to such life saving vaccines.

Later in 1965, at age 21, I was going to spend a summer traveling in Europe. I had to get my first passport. As a condition of getting the passport, I was required to get a smallpox vaccination. I had already gotten a smallpox vaccination as an infant, but international travel rules at that time required an update. I got my “re-vaccination” without much thought. My passport was then stamped with verification so that I could travel internationally. Again, there was no political argument about a “vaccination passport” being an invasion of privacy. It was readily accepted as standard procedure to protect the public against disease outbreaks.

For the rest of my life I have striven to keep my vaccinations updated. Now as a “senior citizen,” I am getting some of the new vaccines (shingles, pneumonia, etc.) as recommended by my physician. So, when the COVID-19 vaccine became available, both my wife and myself, now in our 70s, signed up immediately and got fully vaccinated by late winter. In all the years of receiving various vaccines, I have never come down with any of the diseases that I was vaccinated for, nor have I had any side effects other than a sore arm for a day or two. In fact, the only serious disease I ever did get was the measles. It was no fun, and I was seriously sick for about a week, but I was young and in good physical shape, and fortunately I fully recovered.

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There have always been “anti-vaxxers.” They are welcome to their opinions and beliefs. But, up until the last year or so, I never remember a lifesaving vaccine being so widely “politicized.” Why has this particular disease suddenly changed the way our health care system works?

Iver Mindel (imindel@yahoo.com) lives in Cockeysville.

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