Vaccine refusal triggers return of polio, writes columnist Elaine Ayala


Polio peaked in the United States in the 1940s and 1950s, infecting thousands of people, mostly children, each year.

It caused paralysis and put a generation of children in metal splints, some in “iron lung” machines to breathe.

Vaccines eradicated poliomyelitis, making it so rare that it was taught as history, rather than as a disease new doctors would have to deal with.

In July, as COVID-19 continued to infect, sicken and kill people, polio reemerged in an unvaccinated man in Rockland County, New York. The poliomyelitis virus could have been present as early as April.

The news shocked and angered polio survivor Alfonso De Leon.

“Why would you want to go through what I went through?” He asked.

The retired federal government and Navy veteran celebrated his 76th birthday this weekend. He sat by the pool on Saturday, a cane by his side, waiting for grilled meats to be prepared in his honor.

De Leon was surrounded by his wife of nearly 54 years, Mary; their three adult children and their spouses; and most of their grandchildren.

The latter knows that he limps but has no idea that his grandfather had poliomyelitis in his childhood, nor that a cane can compensate for an atrophied right leg and a foot weakened by a disease diagnosed at age. of 6 months.

Little do they know that at age 10 he had three surgeries on his right leg and foot that helped flatten the foot so he could walk on it.

De Leon is my brother-in-law. He doesn’t remember any pain associated with it all. The mind is tricky that way.

He says his mother told him he cried constantly when he was a baby, probably from pain.

Like so many similarly beaten children, he wore a heavy metal splint. It left after his operations.

The hug drew both attention and pity. He hated both. He desperately wanted to be seen as normal.

At the long-closed Barkley Elementary School on the city’s West Side, he got himself into trouble on purpose, hoping to get spanked by the principal like other boys of that era.

But the principal knew he had poliomyelitis and only reprimanded him.

He beat polio by overachieving, managing to do everything he set out to do. This included military service and a career in law enforcement.

In the navy, he trained in radiocommunications. His specialty was Morse code, which led to a job with the US Border Patrol.

He rose through the ranks of the now-closed U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, eventually becoming the District Director of Harlingen.

The final chapter of his career was at the Department of Homeland Security, where he swore in new citizens, even those confined to their homes. It was an enriching period.

When we sat down for an interview over the weekend, I was moved to tears by the emotional toll polio had on his life.

He spent a childhood ignoring people’s stares and children who laughed at him.

He was on the Lanier High School basketball team but never played. He joined JROTC but a student turned him in.

De Leon was happy to be drafted in the Vietnam War, but nervous about going through a medical.

He described how grateful he was that the Navy provided leggings and how he managed to get his widest foot, the left, to the shoes.

To date, he has to buy two pairs of shoes of different sizes.

Every morning, he wraps his right foot in layers of ACE elastic bandages that help keep his foot stable. That and a cane helped keep him mobile.

De Leon will never wear a brace again. He knows they are no longer metal. But psychologically, he just can’t resolve himself.

He considers himself lucky. He knows that some polio patients have not been able to live a life like his.

He remembers the children at Santa Rosa Hospital, where his mother took him for treatment, lying in “iron lung” machines.

There is cause for concern for the new generations of them.

According to data provided by Metro Health, during the 2021-22 school year, an average of 94.6% of students in Bexar County were vaccinated against polio. Among seventh graders, it was 98 percent.

Since 2000, inactivated poliomyelitis vaccine has been given by injection in the leg or arm, depending on the age of the patient.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that children receive four doses – at 2 months of age, 4 months, 6 to 18 months and, finally, at 4 to 6 years of age.

But due to declining vaccination rates, polio has re-emerged along with other preventable diseases.

Doctors may not even think a patient has polio. The disease initially manifests with fever, fatigue, diarrhea and sore throat.

De Leon hopes her story will help motivate parents who have so far refused to have their children vaccinated against polio.

As well as being a polio survivor, he manages diabetes and high blood pressure, controls his weight and has long quit smoking.

He fell recently and everyone was worried, but he bounced back. He has to be extra careful when picking up his newspaper on uneven grass, he says.

He speaks lovingly of his mother, a Mexican immigrant and saint. She saved one of her childhood braces. He still has it.

He speaks the same of his wife, my sister. He leaned on her, sometimes literally.

But what she also did was treat him normally and never like an invalid.

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