As COVID Vaccines Arrive, Remembering How An Earlier Pandemic Touched a Family

As we say goodbye a dark year, we feel cautious hope that 2021 will be brighter. There are multiple vaccines being put to use against the COVID-19 virus that has affected every corner of life, and scientists from all fields of research have pivoted in the fight against the pathogen. But that optimism is tempered by the reality that scientists and communicators are also in a fight against doubt.

Starting last spring, UConn researchers wasted no time in stepping up research, testing, support, and communicating to the public. Working with UConn researchers every day as part of my job, I’ve been fortunate to learn firsthand from the experts, and help communicate their knowledge.

Not all of my insights into the pandemic come from an academic perspective, though. Watching negative reactions to the vaccines, such as distrust, conspiracies, and rampant misinformation, I can’t help but reflect upon my family’s own experience with epidemic disease: in our case, it was polio.

My great-aunt fell ill while on her honeymoon, contracting an infection that led her to the iron lung and left her initially walking with braces, and later wheelchair-bound for the rest of her life. Still, she considered herself among the lucky ones for having survived at all.

She and my great-uncle raised a family and lived close to extended family in their tiny Midwestern town. I have fond memories of reunions, parades, and even the occasional controlled-burn firefighting exercise in that close-knit community. One particular event involved burning down an old grain elevator, the tallest building in town!

When visiting, I always looked forward to riding in my great-uncle’s restored antique fire engine, but also on my great-aunt’s lap as she wheeled us around her house. She was always upbeat, and I can still see the warmth in her eyes and her kind explanations for the questions I was too shy to ask. She never let the effects of polio stop her from living life to its fullest: from driving a car to raising her children, she found a way.

Though she survived her first battle with the virus, nearly 50 years later, she once again ended up relying on machines to help her breathe. She finally succumbed to a complication called post-polio syndrome, which occurs in between 25-50% of those who recover from an initial polio infection. Though the data isn’t not clear yet, it appears SARS-CoV-2 could be another virus with potential long-term health effects.

Prior to her illness, I’m not sure if the polio vaccine was available to adults who were considered lower-risk. Efforts were centered on children, as exemplified by the famous March of Dimes campaign. However, knowing there was great fear surrounding the virus at the time, I can only imagine that my great-aunt would have been vaccinated if given the chance.

I never thought to ask her this question, probably because I had never really questioned or doubted vaccines. It wasn’t until college, far away from the cornfields of my youth, when I encountered a friend and fellow student who did not see the point in vaccines. Not so ironically, he ended up getting mumps a few months after that conversation, which left me dumbfounded.

The year my great-aunt died was also the year I had my first child. With the crash course that is becoming a parent, the vaccine debate can be scary, but losing a family member to a now vaccine-preventable disease was more frightening. In the years since I first became a parent, doubt that seems impervious to persuasion by scientific evidence has continued, leaving so many to skip vaccinating their children that we are seeing resurgences in preventable diseases like measles.

Now, with the COVID-19 pandemic having claimed hundreds of thousands of lives in the United States, we have multiple vaccines now being rolled out that can change the stories families will one day tell about their histories. Still, in the face of the rising death toll, in some quarters, doubt is holding strong.

Agonizing over decisions about the most mundane things, from leaving the house to buy groceries to whether it’s safe to meet friends outdoors, would have sounded ludicrous a year ago, but have become the “new normal” in the face of a virus spreading with unchecked speed. It doesn’t have to last forever, though. The vaccines, along with social distancing, masks, and staying home when possible, are all tools in our fight to beat the virus.

In the coming months, when the opportunity arises for you and your loved ones to receive a vaccine, think about the kind of stories you want to be able to tell about your family some day in the future – or about the kind of stories your descendants will tell about you.

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