Arthur C. Clarke, polio survivor

Arthur C. Clarke died a couple of weeks ago. By any measurement, the man was incredible. He’d written over 100 books, many of which included futuristic technological ideas that we now take for granted. He may be best remembered for “2001: A Space Odyssey,” a movie he created with Stanley Kubrick, which introduced HAL and made us all forevermore uneasy about the intelligence of our computers. I honor Clarke for all that, but my feeling about him is more personal because he was a paralytic polio survivor. Like me, he was able to freely move when he was in water, but navigating dry land was a challenge.

You don’t hear much about polio any more — even a lot of American health care professionals are vague about what the disease actually is — but there are approximately 20 million people in the world living with the results of polio, about 2 million of them in the US. We’ll all die off one day, but in many developing countries polio is an ever-present threat, with new cases every day. The Global Polio Eradication Initiative is trying to eradicate the disease around the world, and last year the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation teamed up with Rotary International to donate $200 million to the project.

Ironically, while vaccines are being provided for children in developing countries, a growing number of parents in the US are deciding not to inoculate their children. They’ve come to fear all vaccines because of their connection to autism. I understand their fear, and I’m not sure medical researchers are on solid ground when they say it’s purely coincidental that some healthy babies have become autistic immediately after getting routine inoculations. But I also remember that before the Salk vaccine in 1955, polio was the most terrifying disease of the 20th century. There were 3 different strains of the disease, one being non-paralytic and relatively short-lived, the other two being paralytic, with the “bulbar” type including respiratory failure. After the Salk vaccine was developed, the incidence of polio almost disappeared in the US, and I don’t want to see it return.

Mothers know their babies better than scientists do, and if they believe there was a definite cause-and-effect relationship between a series of vaccinations and the onset of autism, I think the medical world should listen to them. On the other hand, I hope young parents don’t become so cautious that they put their children at risk of polio.

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