What if Grandma Had Refused Vaccines? (Pedcast)

Banner Photograph, courtesy of Rare historical Photographs-Link in Smo Notes


It’s the summer of 1952 (the year I was born) and America is at the peak of the polio epidemic and America is paying a heavy price. More than 21,000 people, contracted paralytic polio in 1952 alone. 3000 of them died and many were children. Every mom knew that polio was a summer disease. As the swimming pools opened and the temperature got hotter, parents were terrified that their children would be afflicted. Thank goodness that 1952 also happened to be the year that Jonas Salk perfected an effective polio vaccine that put a halt to the trauma America had experienced at the mercy of this horrible viral disease. Most of you probably knew all that, but in today’s pedcast, I want you to give some thought about what would have unfolded for subsequent generations, had our grandmothers  been vaccine refusers. What would have happened if they had hesitated to vaccinate  their children like so many parents are tempted to do today in the growing anti-vaccine climate that exists in America now? So, don’t you dare move onto another podcast in your queue and miss this important edition of Portable Practical Pediatrics.


Musical introduction,


Remembrances of Polio

It seems like every generation of older pediatricians talk to their younger colleagues about diseases that that they cared for during their careers that are no longer around. That is certainly true when it comes to polio. I have had more than a few conversations with my older colleagues about what our medical centers looked like in years before I arrived in Charlotte–  wards full of children in iron lungs, anguished family members, and children trapped in a bizarre iron device that literally was providing their next breath. Without the power of the iron lung, victims of polio would be dead in just a few minutes. Some children who contracted polio only spent a few weeks in the iron lung but sadly; some could never escape this device. Polio had stolen their childhoods. Running, playing, and moving are what defines a childhood but children with the poliovirus had all that stolen from them. Some had lost their muscular control permanently.  What a depressing place these wards must have been. Their parents couldn’t hold their kids; the children could only talk in short phrases when the iron lung was not drawing air into their lungs. Of course, there was no moving. As for eating, this was particularly tricky for children in iron lungs since food in their mouths could easily be sucked into their lungs during those strong mechanical inspiratory breaths that the machine generated every few seconds. I guess this existence was better than the alternative… but barely. I can’t imagine how this must have scared these kids and their families.  If you have never seen an iron lung, take a look at the photo that I posted in the show notes a listen to this description of an iron lung from article in the Atlantic Magazine that I found.

“A metal chamber, with a sliding base upon which the patient is placed, an electrically operated pump, a gauge and a valve are the chief parts of the outfit. The patient is placed on the sliding bed, shoved into the cabinet and the shield tightly locked. A rubber collar, which fits so snugly that almost no air can pass, is adjusted about the patient’s neck. A switch is turned, and the cabinet begins its work.”


Grandma Knew a Good Thing When She Saw It:

Fortunately, our grandmothers knew exactly what to do when polio vaccine became available… they went and got their children vaccinated as soon as possible. Look at what happened after the Salk polio vaccine became available in 1955! These graphs are absolutely stunning. I get chills looking at them. Polio just vanished in the US. Overnight, America went from 15,000 annual cases of paralytic polio to less than a hundred cases per year. This was a public health miracle of epic proportions. In fact, the vaccine was so effective that the virus only still exists in a few places on earth where war and poverty have prevented it’s effective use, (Pakistan and Nigeria). Certainly not America. https://www.docsmo.com/the-final-defeat-of-polio-article-edited-wm/

But what would have happened had our grandmothers hesitated to vaccinate their children, succumbing to the drumbeat of anti-vaccine messages or her own anxiety about her children getting shots? I can tell you what would have happened– tens of thousands of children would have continued to contract polio and parents and children today, would still be living in fear of summer. Your grandmother was one very smart woman. If she is still around, make sure to talk about what she remembers of polio and give her big thanks for getting her kids vaccinated. In fact, here is a big Doc Smo standing ovation to all the grandmas listening. (applause sound)


If you enjoy learning about pediatrics with pedcasts, please take a moment to like the DocSmo.com Facebook page or write a review on iTunes. If you want to become a DocSmo regular, try subscribing to my blog a www.docsmo.com. I’ll send you an email when i post new subjects for you to explore. And, most importanly, make sure you give your grandmother an opportunity to listen to how she contributed to the well being of children today. This is Dr. Paul Smolen, broadcasting from studio 1E, giving grandmas a big salute, for giving paralytic polio the boot. Until next time.

Many thanks to Dr. Monica Miller for editing this pedcast. Thanks Monica.

Smo Notes:

Lead Photo for Post

Iron lungs for polio victims, 1930s-1950s

-Description and picture of an iron lung



-Polio Statistics 20th Century America


Number of cases of paralytic polio annually in US before Salk vaccine