Polio attacked Len Estin when he was 13 years old, at summer camp in the Poconos. The teenager had thought his sudden fever and muscle cramps were no big deal, and was terrified to find himself locked in a glass isolation cell in a New York City hospital, with his parents peering at him from the outside. There was no polio vaccine back then.
Estin's daughter, Alanna Levine, is now the mother of a 5-year-old and a 7-year-old, and she wants to make sure that their generation doesn't suffer from a resurgence of polio and other infectious diseases. Levine, a pediatrician who practices in Tappan, N.Y., is leading a new effort from the American Academy of Pediatrics to persuade parents that childhood vaccines are both safe and essential in protecting children from harm. She enlisted her dad to explain the realities of infectious disease to parents who have never seen a case of polio, measles, or mumps. "Our vaccination efforts have been so successful, these parents don't know what it looks like to have their children have these diseases," Levine says. "If we stop vaccinating, these diseases will return."
Levine grew up hearing her dad's stories about polio. "A 32-year-old man was brought in about a half-hour after me, with the same diagnosis," Estin, 73, a retired businessman in Woodstock, N.Y., says now. "He was dead by morning. I later found out that they told my parents my chances of surviving were very, very small. That had an enormous effect on them." The teenager was quarantined in the polio ward for 21 days. "Many people died," he says. "Some, like me, recovered." He left the hospital with a limp and an almost useless left arm. The former football player found he couldn't run and couldn't jump. Physical therapy helped, though. "After two, three years I was pretty much recovered," Estin says. "I was one of the lucky ones."
Parents ask Levine about the safety of vaccines almost every day, reflecting national surveys that show 54 percent of parents are concerned about vaccine safety, and 25 percent think that vaccines can cause autism. "There is a growing body of evidence that vaccines are safe," Levine says. "They do not cause autism, and they really are the best way to protect your child." I asked her about the fear that many parents have about vaccine safety, particularly since the Internet is rife with scary stories. Being concerned about your child is a good thing, she says, but in making medical decisions, " I urge them not to let the emotion factor in. You're talking about medicine, and medicine is a science, and you really need to look to the science to make those decisions." She makes a point of listening to parents' concerns, and taking them seriously. After that discussion, she says, most parents do decide to have their children vaccinated.
Estin thinks back to his parents, and that day long ago when they were staring at him through the glass in the polio ward. If they were here today, he says, he would imagine they would express the importance of vaccines. Their granddaughter is saying it for them.
For more families' stories on how they were affected by infectious childhood diseases like polio, measles, and mumps, visit protecttomorrow.org, the website for the new AAP campaign.