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Alanna Levine, M.D., F.A.A.P.

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My Dad Cheated Death, and Others Can Too

Posted: 04/23/2012 7:07 pm

April 21st was the start of World Immunization Week. It is a call to action but for me, as a pediatrician and a mom, it also serves as a reminder of how lucky we, as Americans, are to have access to critical preventative vaccines that protect our children from diseases like polio, measles and pneumonia.

One in five children around the globe lacks access to the life-saving immunizations that help keep children in the U.S. healthy. As a result, diseases that have virtually disappeared in the U.S. and other developed nations, are still experienced in developing nations at epidemic levels.

As a mother, I can only imagine the fear and frustration felt by the parents in these countries, as they watch their children grow sick, knowing that there is a good chance they will die.

While it is easy to take our access to preventative medicine for granted, it is important to remember that, not so long ago, this was a gripping fear faced by parents in America as well --including my grandparents. At age 13 my father was diagnosed with polio. He was lucky enough to live to tell us about it.

Here is his story:

I was 13 years old and at a summer camp in the Pocono Mountains. As the summer of 1949 brought the worst polio epidemic in U.S. history, the camp was very cautious and actually sealed off the campgrounds from outsiders, with no one allowed in or out. When food was delivered, it was left in a designated area and after the delivery truck left, the kitchen crew would retrieve it and bring it into the kitchen. Parent visitation weekends were cancelled.

While at camp, I broke my glasses and was taken to the nearest town for a new pair. I became sick two weeks after my trip to town. I came down with a high fever and all my muscles became stiff -- it felt like a bad flu. A spinal tap confirmed the suspected diagnosis, although nobody shared the news with me. I was brought to the hospital and while I waited for the doctor, I noticed that all the posters on the walls related only to polio. At that moment, I realized that I had polio and that in all likelihood I would either be crippled for life or die. I was just 13 years old.

When my parents arrived, they were told to prepare for the possibility I would die within 24 hours. As a parent (and grandparent) myself, I have no idea how one prepares for such an eventuality, but the pain they must have suffered is unimaginable.

One hour after I was put in my bed on the isolation ward, a 32-year-old man was moved into the glass cubicle next to mine. By 7 AM he had died.

I had not been off my bed for about three weeks when one day, the doctors miraculously said I was going home. I remember how weak I felt as I shuffled down the hall, using my legs for the first time in almost a month. I was standing by the elevator with a nurse behind me when the elevator door opened and the slight breeze blew me over backwards. Perhaps anticipating my weakness, the nurse was ready and caught me before I hit the floor.

After leaving the hospital, I received extensive physical therapy for over a year and regained most of my strength and balance. Although I improved significantly, I had remaining weakness in my left arm for years and I was unable to compete in sports for many years to follow.


As a child growing up, I vividly remember hearing about my father's experience with polio. As a teenager, I could never fathom how he must have felt as he watched the man next to him die of the very same disease he had, knowing that there was good likelihood he would be dead by morning.

In medical school we were taught about the symptoms of polio and how to diagnose it. We were shown pictures of patients with atrophied legs and on iron lung machines. We learned about the people who died during the polio epidemic in the United States. And, we were also taught how to prevent polio with a vaccine that is now routinely given to babies and children. It was then that I realized how truly lucky my family was. My father had survived when many hadn't, and my sisters and I were protected by the vaccines we were privileged enough to receive.

As a practicing pediatrician, I have become a passionate vaccine advocate. Every day, I educate my patients and their families about the benefits of vaccines. On a national level, I have partnered with fellow pediatricians and with the American Academy of Pediatrics to share my knowledge with parents across the country.

This past January, my perspective and experience broadened. I was invited to attend a global vaccine summit hosted by the UN Foundation's Shot@Life Campaign, a movement to protect children worldwide by providing vaccines where they are needed most. But, the room was not filled with doctors and scientists. It was filled with parents -- moms and dads -- who were rallying together to advocate for vaccines. It was inspiring to hear them speak so passionately about giving children around the world the shot at life that their children are privileged enough to have in the United States. I joined mom-bloggers, teachers, advocates, and Lions Club Members who were dedicated to using their influential voices to raise awareness about the importance of global vaccination programs.

In this country we often take vaccines for granted, but now during World Immunization week, I encourage you to join us in our global vaccination effort. Go to shotatlife.org to find out how you can help save a child's life every 20 seconds, and help us stop the 1.5 million unnecessary deaths that occur every year.

Remember ALL children deserve their shot at life.

 
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