For lack of a vaccine, a lifetime of polio

Marney Rich Keenan
The Detroit News

With almost daily reports of new measles outbreaks across the country, the vaccine debate rages on, more impassioned than ever.

Vaccine opponents cite a host of objections, stemming from religious and philosophical “all natural” views to fears of health risks. All the while, an abundance of studies say those risks are greatly outweighed by the dangers of catching previously eradicated diseases, not to mention spreading them to others.

Last week in this column, a local mother of four explained why she chose not to inoculate her two younger children. This week, a local mother and grandmother explains why she supports vaccines.

Bobbi Stevens, 60, of Royal Oak was exposed as a baby to polio, a historically devastating disease that was eliminated in the United States by 1979 thanks to widespread vaccination.

While the vaccine was introduced in April 1955, children under a year were thought to be too young to receive the inoculation. Stevens was 5 months old in 1955 when she contracted paralytic polio.

“I have lived with the consequences of being exposed to that disease every day of my life,” she says. “I never walk. I will never dance. I will spend my whole life in a wheelchair. I was too young for the vaccine, but perhaps, if the person who inadvertently exposed me to the polio virus had been vaccinated, my life story would have been much different.”

Completely paralyzed from her lower back down, Stevens, 60, has been wheelchair bound for the last 20 years. Until she was 40 years old, she was able to walk with braces and crutches. But doctors said the cumulative pressure on her arms was the stress equivalent of a major league pitcher. About 20 years ago, “the doctors said if I want to retain the use of my arms I was told to sit down and not get up.”

Stevens is especially concerned about vaccinations because the highly contagious nature of these once-conquered diseases. She notes that measles, which can be fatal, is more contagious than almost any other disease. According to the University of Michigan School of Public Health, the reproduction rate with measles —the likely number of people to be infected from a single infectious case, is 12 to 18 people.

Measles is spread when an infected person sneezes, coughs or talks. The virus can stay in the air for up to two hours. Also, people with measles can spread the disease starting four days before the rash begins until four days after it appears.

Stevens says her parents were not able to determine how she contracted polio. “They didn’t know anyone who had an active case of polio at the time. But people can get mild cases and not even know they have it. And, if you are out in society, you are going to be shedding the virus whether or not you have any symptoms.”

Stevens says knows personally people who still believe there is a link between autism and vaccines, even in the face of more than a dozen scientific studies discrediting British physician Andrew Wakefield, who originally posited the connection.

“They still believe it,” Stevens says. “Without any medical training or any credentials that would qualify them to make such judgments.”

As far as other perceived risks, Stevens is unequivocal. “I’ve been a patient all of my life. Everything in medicine is a risk versus benefit proposition. Any doctor will tell you anytime you have any medical procedure or even get a prescription for an infection, there is a risk for complication. There is always the possibility that something could go wrong; you weigh the benefits and risks accordingly.”

The point of immunizations, she says, is to not only protect your own child, but others as well. “We have to think unselfishly as well as selfishly. You’ve got a wonderfully healthy child who can be protected and you can also do so much good for others by having that child vaccinated.”

Above all, Stevens does not want anyone’s sympathy. She is neither martyr nor hero. “This is not a pity party,” she says. “I have a good life. I married a good man. We have to children and a granddaughter. I’ve had a wonderful life.

“But I know these parents would be grief-stricken if this saw their child come down with what I have and know that it could have been prevented.”