BORN LAST SUMMER at the height of the pandemic, my younger brother’s 9-month-old twins, Talia and Gavin, have not yet acquired what psychologist Jean Piaget termed “object permanence.” Bright toys supplied by distanced aunts and uncles are quickly forgotten — out of sight, out of mind.
Similarly, when the terrors of infectious disease recede in the rearview mirror, the collective memory might not serve. Even as countless lives have been saved, a sizable plurality of humans worldwide remains vaccine-hesitant.
Lest we forget, it was on April 12, 1955, that church bells rang out across the nation, celebrating clinical trials proving that Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine had defeated a scourge that had been deadly for decades.
In a front-page banner headline, The Seattle Times shouted, “Vaccine is effective, potent, safe.” Below, an article said vaccination would “smash polio’s terror and tragedies … [ending] the fear that has long gripped the hearts of parents.”
Only three years earlier, in 1952, polio had peaked in the United States. Nearly 58,000 people, mostly children, fell ill. Of those, polio had paralyzed 21,000 and killed 3,000. Most outbreaks took place in summer. Infections seemed random and unpredictable. A child playing with friends one afternoon might end up hospitalized by evening.
But vaccines ended polio in the Americas by 1992, largely eliminating it across the globe. It was not the only viral killer brought to heel. Smallpox, which killed more than 300 million in the 20th century, was eradicated. Inoculation vastly reduced measles, yellow fever and hepatitis.
Today, however, vaccines might fall victim to their historical success. Some who have not personally witnessed a viral catastrophe apparently deem it unreal.
Hilary Godwin, dean of the University of Washington School of Public Health, faults social media for amplifying misinformation. “We in the sciences and in public health,” she says, “need to regain the trust of the general population, in a bipartisan way.”
Godwin also addresses an understandable mistrust of the medical establishment in Black and Native American communities: “We must not only recognize historical injustices and inequities but also elevate the conversation to talk about them openly.”
Joining the conversation is Ken Workman, fourth-generation great-grandson of Chief Seattle and a Duwamish tribal elder, who received his first COVID-19 inoculation in March.
“I’m alive today because my family survived the genocide of welcoming Europeans,” he says. “We survived gifts of smallpox blankets. We survived gentrification and displacement. The world may be all up in arms over COVID, yet for me this is just another day.”
Between tides of uncertainty and hope, will we someday be able to ring out a new celebration?