Viruses, vaccines and personal choice
Memories of past illnesses, inoculation campaigns influence some people's decision on COVID-19 shot
MARTINS FERRY — As Ohio Valley residents continue to roll up their sleeves to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, many of them have memories of dealing with past virus outbreaks during their childhood — including polio and smallpox.
Some folks dealt with it themselves, while others had friends and neighbors who were impacted by the diseases.
A few people noted the memory of dealing with a variety of other childhood illnesses has influenced their decisions on taking other vaccines.
Still others are on the fence about taking the COVID-19 vaccine because of what they have read or heard about it, factual or not.
Dr. C. Clark Milton, director of corporate health and chairman of the infectious disease department at Wheeling Hospital, has a clear memory of the polio virus and its impact. When he was young he remembers seeing a child in his Woodsdale neighborhood with metal braces on his legs and using crutches as well. The child’s disability was caused by polio.
“It’s ingrained in my mind,” Milton said. “It was incredibly dramatic as a 4- or 5-year-old. … Seeing a child with metal braces has impacted me ’til today.”
Milton said when people ask him about the safety of the COVID-19 vaccine he gives them as much factual information as possible so they can make an informed decision about whether to take it. He doesn’t always know the outcome of people’s decisions after speaking with them, but he noted nationally people’s trust in the vaccine has increased since last fall.
For example, in October about 30 percent of people polled said they would get the vaccine when available. Now that number has increased to 70 percent, he said.
“People are beginning to see it as effective and safe,” he said “The other issue is that this is a very personal disease. We’ve had more than 500,000 deaths and all of know someone who’s had (COVID-19) or maybe has been in hospital in the ICU and died. The majority of us don’t want to go through it or our family members go through it.”
He said people’s initial safety concerns were brought on by a belief that it was developed too quickly and that it would not be effective. Milton said there have been few reports of people having an allergic reaction following the vaccine, but there is no evidence the vaccine is linked to deaths.
“It’s a risk-benefit analysis we all have to make. As time goes on with this COVID vaccine, I believe the benefits will outweigh the risks,” Milton said.
Much like the COVID-19 concerns of today, when polio struck many communities closed their swimming pools, parks and playgrounds for fear of more children getting infected with the virus that caused limb deformities, paralysis and, in some cases, death. Dr. Jonas Salk (1914-1995) developed the first successful vaccine against polio.
Smallpox disease, which was finally eradicated in 1979, caused a month-long time of suffering for the person infected. Symptoms included high fever, body and head aches and sometimes vomiting. The initial rash began in the person’s mouth and tongue, then spread to the body. The sores would fill with fluid, eventually turning scabby before finally falling off, according to the CDC.
For Beallsville resident Steve Prichard, the memory of the polio and smallpox vaccines campaigns are clear in his mind.
“I remember getting a smallpox vaccination and getting the polio vaccine on a sugar cube in school in the ’50s,” Prichard said, adding he is now 77 years old. “I will get the (COVID-19) shot when available.”
Shelley Balint of Cadiz also remembers receiving the polio vaccine.
“I remember the polio one. My ex had polio as a toddler. There were no questions, you went and did it,” Balint said.
Balint noted she does have reservations about the COVID-19 vaccine.
“The problem with the current vaccine is, thanks to the media, people no longer have faith or trust in the government or the media. They feel betrayed and distrustful of both. And due to rushing the testing through and new strains popping up so fast this increases the distrust. I don’t see it changing anytime soon.”
Balint said she does not get sick with influenza annually, but also does not take seasonal flu shots. She does not plan on getting the COVID-19 shot.
My “doctor agreed I should skip it instead of putting it in my system … Chicken pox, measles and mumps when I had them were super mild cases,” Balint said of her childhood illnesses.
Paula Lowmiller of Canton, Ohio, said her husband, Jim Lowmiller, a Jewett native, had polio as a child.
“My husband had polio in the early ’50s. He is reminded every day of its effects. He was in an iron lung for 53 days,” Lowmiller said.
The couple has received their first COVID-19 vaccine shots and they are scheduled to receive their second.
Barnesville resident Dana Mathews remembers getting vaccinated against polio and smallpox as a child.
“I just remember being vaccinated for them in elementary school. We all lined up in the auditorium to get them. I do know of a couple people who were crippled after contracting polio,” Mathews said.
She has already received her first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.
“I’m due to get my next one sometime next week. … I made my decision after hearing about so many who have died or had severe complications from the virus,” Mathews said.
Karen Brosh Angelo, a native of the Fulton neighborhood of Wheeling who now lives in St. Clairsville, said she, too, remembers receiving the polio vaccine as a child.
“My entire family lined up outside Fulton grade school with everyone in the neighborhood. We were given a sugar cube with a pink solution on it. For the children it was a day of fun — I am sure it was different for my parents,” Angelo said. “I received my first COVID vaccine yesterday without fear but some anxiety. However, the level of anxiety does not compare to getting COVID.”
John Davies, Martins Ferry resident and mayor of the city, said he “will probably get” the COVID-19 vaccine when it is available for him.
“I think the priority should be given to older people with underlying conditions,” Davies said. “I think Ohio has it right, some other places might not.”
Davies said he understands some people may be concerned about the safety of the vaccine, but the decision to get it is up to the individual.
“There is risk to everything. Every medication has a risk. It’s just what’s best for the person. It’s a personal decision … it’s not mandatory. Everyone knows their own body best.”
Bellaire native Jim Tarbet, who now lives in Illinois, said he still has the smallpox vaccine scar on his arm from when he received it in 1952. He also has memories about polio and its impact.
“I remember a classmate getting polio the summer of 1954, also the sister of another classmate.
We got the Salk vaccine at school,” Tarbet said. “And most aggressive outdoor activities were reduced during the Dog Days of August. A number of years later, the Sabin vaccine became available, the pink serum on the sugar cube.”
Tarbet said he also remembers being hospitalized with the 1957 Asian flu, an illness that killed
one of his roommates, he said.
Regarding the COVID-19 vaccine,Tarbet said he will get it eventually.
“With this being winter, I am essentially quarantined anyway. Therefore, I am in no rush for the vaccine, no need to fight the panic,” Tarbet said.
Jerry McCombs of Belmont said he remembers people who contracted polio before it was eradicated.
“There were several from the early days of school. I knew of one who was in an iron lung for a while. I remember we got three separate shots; later, it was given on a sugar cube,” McCombs said.
McCombs said he plans to get the COVID vaccine. And McCombs himself dealt with several childhood illnesses that are now prevented in young children thanks to vaccines.
“I get a flu shot every year. I have had my pneumonia shots and shingles shot. When I started school there were no vaccines for measles, whooping cough, mumps, chicken pox — I had all these illnesses,” McCombs added.
Anita Bobot, a Cadiz native who now lives in Pennsylvania, said she remembers seeing equipment used to battle polio inside Martins Ferry hospital when she was a nursing student there in the 1960s.
“I remember the iron lung no longer in use, but still sitting in the hospital basement and the heated containers used to heat the compresses for the Sister Kenny treatment of polio,” Bobot said. “The packs were moist and very hot and were used on the polio patients to ease muscle spasms and pain. Her treatments were the forerunner of rehab medicine. As students we hoped we wouldn’t be picked as the person used to demonstrate this procedure.”
Bobot said she plans to wait before getting the COVID-19 vaccine.
“I think it will prove to be a godsend. However, getting appointments, etc., appears to be a big problem. Will I get it at this time? No. For me I would prefer waiting to make sure there aren’t any ill effects from it. We know all meds have side effects. However, time is something we don’t have with so many people dying or having already died. We are between a rock and a hard place,” Bobot said.
Lowell Keppel, a St. Clairsville native who now lives in Arizona, also has memories related to polio and smallpox.
“I was young, but still remember waiting in line at the St. Clairsville clinic to get my smallpox vaccine and the polio sugar cube,” Keppel said. “I had no friends or family members with either, but remember how excited my mother was to have it available for me.”
Keppel said he also remembers dealing with some childhood viruses before there were vaccines for them.
“I also remember getting measles and chickenpox when I was young. My cases were mild; however, I had a friend who became very ill with measles, but survived,” Keppel said.
“I grew up to become a primary care physician, and early in my career treated one or two patients in an iron lung. I fully understand how much misery, illness, incapacitation and how many deaths routine vaccinations for those conditions have helped to avoid.”
Keppel said he has received his first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine and is scheduled to soon receive the second shot.
Martha Johnson of The Plains, Ohio, remembers watching TV and seeing images related to polio.
“I remember seeing on TV pictures of wards filled with iron lungs. I received my polio shot in school,” she said.
Johnson said she had already received her first COVID vaccine shot and was set to receive the second last Thursday.
Mary Maguire of Wheeling said being born in 1947, she well remembers polio and that a doctor’s son in the community had polio.
“The vaccines, from what I remember, weren’t pushed out real fast and took time to develop. When they came out they were proved safe. Everyone got them,” Maguire said. “Later they came out with a sugar cube instead of the vaccine. As for smallpox, you couldn’t go to kindergarten or school without proof of being vaccinated. Once injected they put a round plastic thing over the spot until the scab formed and fell off.”
Maguire said she will not take the COVID-19 vaccine for several reasons, including her ongoing stomach issues and her concerns about the vaccine’s ingredients.
“I have done lots of research on the two vaccines out and I will never ever get it. Research each ingredient; none of these ingredients make any sense, and for the life of me I cannot understand how they can be approved even temporarily just during the pandemic,” Maguire said.
One of the ingredients Maguire believes is in the vaccine is “antifreeze”; however, published reports state there is no antifreeze in the vaccine. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the vaccines made by both Pfizer and Moderna contain messenger RNA, lipids, salts, sugars and buffers, which “help maintain the stability of the pH solution.”
The CDC notes the vaccines made by Pfizer or Moderna do not contain eggs, preservatives or latex.
Maguire also believes the companies that made the vaccines will benefit financially in the future if people have complications — that they would need to take more medications manufactured by them.
Dr. Jeremy Edgmon, chief medical officer at East Ohio Regional Hospital, believes in general that people are happy COVID-19 vaccines are now available to take.
“People are generally excited for the vaccine and realize that it is a very important step in helping us all get through this pandemic,” Edgmon said.
“Older patients have been in the first round of those to be vaccinated, and they have responded very well. I believe their experience with other vaccine initiatives has been helpful. We know that, for the most part, COVID is more dangerous for older patients; however, younger patients remain interested in doing their part to be vaccinated when it is their turn.”
Edgmon said there are people who are not sure about getting the vaccine, but it is an individual’s decision on whether to take it.
“Generally, most people are interested in obtaining a vaccine — even if they have some questions about it. The important thing is to educate yourself and take whatever precautions that you are comfortable with taking as they become available,” Edgmon said. “It is natural for patients to have questions about the vaccine, but once they get all the facts, patients are usually comfortable.”