I am of an age that vaccines have made a huge difference in my life. The big vaccine news at the time of my birth was polio vaccine. The first effective vaccine was developed a few years before I was born, but it was not used in the US. The inactivated polio vaccine, developed by Jonas Salk, and used across the U.S. was approved when I was 4 years old. Then, when I was in the third grade, the Sabin oral polio vaccine became available and we received it. Prior to the vaccine, people lived in fear of polio. The disabling and life-threatening disease spread from person to person and when it moves from the gut to the nervous system the results are paralysis. The disease can progress as quickly as a few hours. Developing a vaccine to slow the spread of the disease was a life-changing event for parents and children. The World Health Organization lists polio vaccine as an “essential medicine.”

I can remember receiving the oral vaccine. We received it at school. It was considered to be something that everyone did. But I never experienced the fear of polio in the way that people did before the development of the vaccine.

Of course polio wasn’t the first pandemic to sweep the globe. Smallpox, plague and typhus caused huge impacts on health and mortality rates centuries before I was born. Disease and the fear of disease has been with humans as long as humans have inhabited this planet.

It is interesting to think, however, about the impact of vaccines and other tools of modern scientific medicine to change not only the course of diseases and their transmission but our perception of the world in which we live.

This morning we will receive our first dose of the coronavirus vaccine. A small prick in our upper arms is nothing new to us. We have been diligent in receiving our flu vaccinations every year for most of our adult lives. The difference, of course, is the high mortality rate of Covid-19 combined with the politics of vaccine research and distribution. The reason that today is the day for our vaccinations is that we have been able to focus considerable attention on searching the internet, getting on waiting lists and paying attention to where we could obtain it. It didn’t hurt that we have a son who is a librarian and who kept on top of the research on how to obtain the vaccine for us.

We are fortunate. We don’t have health histories that put us into the category of the most vulnerable. We were happy to wait our turn. On the other hand, we put effort and energy into getting in line as soon as our age category was eligible. It took a bit longer for us that for some of our peers in other states. There have been problems with uneven distribution of vaccines. While becoming vaccinated is important for us, we don’t want to be cutting in line ahead of others who have more urgent need.

On the other hand, we are eager to travel. And our travel wasn’t terribly restricted by the pandemic when compared to others. We made the decision to make an Interstate move of our household in the midst of the pandemic. Our move involved multiple drives from South Dakota to Washington and back. We spent a few nights in motels last summer and autumn. We tried to be as safe as possible and careful about keeping our distance, wearing our face masks, washing our hands and disinfecting surfaces. But we took risks.

Bigger than the fear of contraction the virus ourselves was the fear of inadvertently spreading it to others. We didn’t want to contribute to the problem by our choice of behavior. Although we will still need to be careful with our behavior, becoming vaccinated is one way that we can help reduce the spread of the virus.

I’ve had enough conversations with those opposed to widespread vaccination to know that our opinion about vaccines isn’t the only one out there. Inaccurate stories about negative effects of routine childhood stories spawned an anti-vaccine movement in the United States. The choice not to vaccinate children has contributed to outbreaks of measles. Fortunately enough people have chosen to vaccinate their children that diseases such as whooping cough and mumps haven’t surged excessively.

The politicization of vaccines is, however, new. I don’t think that political party affiliation has before been such an indicator of vaccination rates as is with the coronavirus vaccine. CBS news reported that over a third of Republicans don’t want to get Covid shots. While our friends have reported to us that it is easier to obtain vaccines in red states and those living in states with Republican majorities have in general been able to obtain vaccine before we did, the vaccination rate is lower in red states than in blue states. Texas has one of the worst vaccination rates in the country. Although there have been shortages, the vaccination rate here in Washington is reasonable, with about 20% of the population having received vaccine. We do, however, lag behind our former state of South Dakota, where the rate is above 25%. And Washington is a blue state while South Dakota is a red state, so the generalities don’t apply across the board.

We probably won’t remember today as a turning point in the administration of vaccines or as a turning point in our lives. In a way receiving polio vaccine probably was a bigger deal than becoming vaccinated for coronavirus. For today, however, receiving our shots is big news in our lives. It is something that we can do that has potential health benefits not only for us but also for the wider community.

We’ll leave the debate to others. We have seen the benefits of scientific medicine in our lives and we will continue to make the best decisions we are able with our health care. And today we’ll get a dose of vaccine that has proven to be both safe and effective. It is worth the effort.

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