CAPE ELIZABETH — I remember awakening slowly and with a headache that late summer morning in 1954. I remember as well the many white coats and the spinal tap that afternoon. I was only 5 and don’t remember anyone telling me I had polio, and not sure at that age it would have meant much to me anyway. As a parent and grandparent now myself, I can only imagine the terror that must have stricken my mom and dad.

I spent weeks in a children’s hospital, all the wards full of children with polio. I remember my daily wheelchair excursions through the halls seeing other, less fortunate kids, some even in “iron lungs.”

I was lucky. Unlike so many thousands of other victims each summer, I made a full recovery. By the next summer of 1955, Dr. Jonas Salk and his team had released a killed virus vaccine and in short order polio in most of the world was eliminated. Polio occurs now only among the unvaccinated in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nigeria due to a religious fatwa suggesting that vaccination is a Western plot to sterilize their children.

That intense and prolonged exposure to health providers during my recovery probably planted the seeds that became my ambition from an early age to enter the practice of medicine.

By the time I entered medical school in 1972, measles and mumps, both of which I’d had, including a febrile seizure with the measles, were practically eliminated in the United States. Pertussis – whooping cough – had been eliminated decades before among vaccinated children. The most feared of all for me was Hemophilus influenza infection in children. This dread bacteria could take a healthy, vigorous child from normalcy to death in such a short time, by way of meningitis, blood infection or swelling shut of the airway, called epiglottitis.

The release of the Hib vaccine in 1985 all but eliminated this horrible disease, and fortunately the residents and medical students I teach will likely never see a case of it.

Other important vaccines have followed suit, reducing or eliminating diseases that cause suffering or death. Even today the world looks to prompt development of a vaccine to help contain the coronavirus pandemic, and vaccines will likely play a role in containment of future outbreaks.

I can honestly say in my nearly 50 years in the practice of medicine, which included the development of CT scans and MRIs, all incredible technology, as well as countless procedures and pharmaceuticals that save lives, reduce suffering and improve the quality of life, nothing approaches the effectiveness, both measured by cost and outcomes, of vaccines.

As both a parent and grandparent I have great respect for the challenges, tough decisions and responsibilities of those who choose to parent. When I testified last spring in Augusta, I listened with an open heart to those many parents who feel that their parental rights are being infringed. I respect their right to disagree; however, as a physician and a scientist, I must reassure them the science is clear and the consensus is strong that vaccines are safe and effective. As a community, we must rely on one another and contribute to each other’s welfare. I ask those who would vote “yes” on Question 1, what risk they are willing to take to expose their children and those around them to preventable diseases.

As a parent, a polio survivor and a physician, I encourage you to vote “no” on Question 1.


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