Support the Timberjay by making a donation.

Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Do you know anyone confined to an iron lung?

Catie Clark
Posted 12/13/23

A picture is often worth 1,000 words. Here’s one that I drafted for a blog during the measles outbreak of 2019, using data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The whole point …

This item is available in full to subscribers.

Please log in to continue

Log in

Do you know anyone confined to an iron lung?


A picture is often worth 1,000 words. Here’s one that I drafted for a blog during the measles outbreak of 2019, using data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The whole point of this little graph is that vaccines work. It’s a stunning illustration of what happens when you follow practices recommended by evidence-based science.
We’ve eliminated several diseases through vaccines, diseases that killed millions. I grew up on stories from my mother of how many families of Marshall, Minn. would be devastated every year after visiting the super-spreader event of the state fair, when polio would ravage entire communities in its wake. This was everyday life in Minnesota in the 1940s.
Then Dr. Salk’s polio vaccine arrived, and this little graph shows what happened next. Polio is no longer a scourge. These days, kids don’t even know what an iron lung is, whereas I grew up knowing someone exiled to living with one just to breathe in the aftermath of a polio outbreak in the 1950s. Did you know the curves for the incidence of measles and rubella look almost the same? Vaccines work if herd immunity can be achieved through the public health initiatives of an enlightened society, which we used to be.
When confronted with evidence like this, I often find it unfathomable that some people think their misinformed opinion against vaccines should take precedence over the health of an entire society. “Misinformed” is a polite way to express what I really think.
Yes, this is a topic that’s been beaten to death. It’s likely impossible to convert true believers in myths, superstitions, and conspiracy theories. For diseases that I’ve been immunized against, I will live if an outbreak happens and the Luddites who ignore the obvious science of my little graph will die or land in the modern equivalent of an iron lung.
In my family, my generation was raised on the lived experience of the older generation of living through horrifying epidemics that even COVID-19 couldn’t approach for the terror they wreaked on the world. Rabies, smallpox, influenza, polio, measles: all of these have been mostly removed from modern societies and their memory has been lost.
My gut feeling is that the loss of that societal terror might be part of the problem with those refusing to vaccinate for reasons that have nothing to do with evidence-based science. Knowing someone confined to an iron lung was likely a great motivator to get vaccinated against polio. I met someone in the 1970s who had to spend most of their time living in an iron lung after contracting polio in the 1950s. These days, I’ve met people younger than myself who don’t even know what an iron lung is.
We’ve all heard of how whole villages were wiped out during the Black Death in the 1350s in Europe. In my research for a newspaper story in 2018, while still living in Idaho, I discovered an entire town was wiped out in southeastern Idaho during the Spanish Flu outbreak in the summer 1919. That’s not that long ago. This is the world my grandparents lived in. Incidences like this form the living memories my family shared with me as a child and they stayed with me.
Besides my mother’s tales of polio in Marshall in the 1940s, the generational memory that stuck with me the most is from my grandmother. She was a nurse who went on to become a physician, back when it was difficult for a woman to become a doctor.
My grandmother was a nursing student in Philadelphia in 1918. In the fall of that year, Philadelphia became the worst hit city in the nation for Spanish Flu deaths, with 12,000 people dying in just four weeks. That number translates to roughly one person dying out of every 120 in one of the largest cities in the nation. With modern public health measures, not even COVID-19 comes close to numbers like these. The Spanish Flu killed an estimated 50 million worldwide. That’s the same as the number of people killed during WWII, which is still the deadliest war in history.
So many people died so quickly in Philadelphia that the city’s ability to handle the corpses was overwhelmed. In response to the failure of the city to handle the dead, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Philadelphia mobilized its seminarians, school-teacher nuns, and nursing school students. My grandmother was one of those nursing students.
The Archdiocese assembled horse-drawn wagons from farms surrounding the city and manned them with people like my grandmother. For weeks, they rode through the city collecting bodies. As they drove down the fear-infested streets, they would call out—I kid you not—“Bring out your dead.” Then they would take the bodies and bury them in unmarked grave pits.
Today, we know the Spanish Flu as the H1N1 influenza A virus. It’s included in every flu shot for reasons that should be obvious. Without modern public health and vaccines, we would still be bringing out our dead for mass burials in unmarked graves in places like Mercyhurst Cemetery in Philadelphia.
Personally, this generational memory is all the motivation I need to get my flu shot every year, along with all my other vaccinations and boosters, including the ones for COVID-19. The COVID-19 vaccine is a miracle. I consider former President Trump’s Operation Warp Speed, which developed an effective vaccine in less than a year, as the greatest achievement of his presidential administration.
I consider it a tragedy that so many of his right wing-leaning fans have rejected the COVID-19 vaccines for reasons rooted in superstition, myths, and conspiracy theories. Because of these people, this great nation squandered the opportunity to achieve true herd immunity to a deadly disease, unlike our experiences with polio, mumps, pertussis, and rubella. Deaths from ignoring evidence-based science is not making America great again, folks. A picture really is worth a 1,000 words.
COVID-19, influenza, and RSV cases are going up rapidly right now. It’s not too late to get immunized.