The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A horrifying reminder of what life without vaccines was really like

ca. 1955 --- A patient suffering from infantile paralysis reads a comic book attached to the rim of his iron lung. The iron lung maintains breathing for the patient by operating his lungs. --- Image by Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS

“The patient is placed on the sliding bed, shoved into the cabinet and the shield tightly locked. A rubber collar, which fits so snugly that almost no air can pass, is adjusted about the patient's neck. A switch is turned, and the cabinet begins its work.”

This is how a 1930 article in “Popular Mechanics” described an “an artificial lung on wheels.” Better known as a tank respirator or iron lung, the machine pictured above was once a cutting-edge and living saving treatment for victims of polio. And it is a chilling reminder of what life without vaccines looked like -- and why we should worry about efforts to prevent kids from getting the shots that protect them, and other children, from diseases like measles.

As it progresses through the body, the polio virus paralyzes muscle groups, ultimately leaving patients unable to breathe on their own. Children stricken with polio would spend weeks or months lying in the iron lung, reading, watching TV, or just staring at an upside-down image of the room reflected through a mirror above their heads. Most patients who progressed to this stage died, but with the help of the iron lung, some survived. There was no treatment for polio at the time, beyond trying to live through it.

The iron lung, devised by Philip Drinker and Louis Agassiz Shaw at Harvard in 1927, was originally powered by an electric motor and vacuum cleaners. A patient would sit with their body inside a sealed-air-tight compartment, in which the air pressure would change to pull air in and out of the patients’ lungs.

Polio was one of the most feared diseases of the 20th Century, crippling more than 35,000 people in the U.S. each year on average between the late 1940s and the early 1950s. As polio vaccinations became more common in the 1950s, polio gradually disappeared, and the iron lung went along with it.

But these photos are still a startling record of a not-so-distant past -- and a reminder not to take vaccination for granted.

It might seem odd that we’re still arguing about vaccination – a quick glance at history shows vaccination's incredible social benefits, and no scientific research has ever supported the primary argument of vaccination opponents, that vaccines cause autism. The one 1998 paper that did support such a connection between the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine and autism was retracted from the public record. Yet myths about the harms of vaccination persist, especially online, and the past year has seen a sudden surge in measles cases as parents, particularly in California, chose not to get their children vaccinated.

In April, a new study was published that should end this debate once and for all. The Journal of the American Medical Association published a study of nearly 100,000 children in which researchers found no link between the MMR vaccine and autism spectrum disorders -- even among children who had autistic siblings and thus a higher risk for the disorders.

In rare cases, some vaccines can cause adverse effects – such as anaphylaxis, an allergic reaction. But beyond this, vaccines cause very few health problems (and autism is not one of them). The far greater danger is the illnesses that they are designed to protect us against – diseases that ravaged America not so many decades ago.

(h/t Lindsey Fitzharris)

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