Sunday, April 5, 2015

Polio is Something I Can't Shake

Everywhere I look today, I just see polio.

On my desk is a pamphlet promoting a walk-a-thon for World Polio Day. In my newsfeed, a growing stream of stories about Joni Mitchell's collapse with most making reference to her polio as a child and asking whether she might be suffering some 'post-polio' type ailment. On my desk top is a video of the 60 Minutes story exploring the idea that some cancer patients benefited from being treated with a variant of the polio virus. In my in-box is an announcement of the showing of a new documentary at Hot Docs telling the story of aid workers intent on vaccinating every last child in the world against the crippler. In another email is an essay from an environmental historian who asks some very interesting questions about nature, natural and the idea of virus based vaccinations. And in ten days my book will be published and I know people will want to talk about polio and I am still not sure how much I want to talk about polio.

I have truly mixed feelings about the virus. On the one hand it is a disease that shaped who I am in a most dramatic fashion. On the other hand, for most people today, in North America, it is a mystery, an enigma. Debi was talking with someone the other day about my book and they asked quite sincerely if polio was something you were born with. It is a fascinating reality that 60 years ago polio had the continent gripped by fear and today it is, for the most part, a curiosity.

When people ask me about polio it is a way of asking about me and how I was shaped and formed. But they are also asking obliquely about vaccines and children, diseases and prevention. We are lucky. Vaccines have made most childhood terrors a faint memory, so faint in fact that we have forgotten how vitally important the social contract we make about vaccines really is. The deal, that all children get vaccinated for the good of all children despite the rare possibility of unfortunate side-effects, is at the heart of society's rush to make childhood, to the extent possible, a safe zone.  That was a relatively easy deal to make when polio was slicing through society indifferent as to who was struck down. When we choose to not vaccinate our children we are standing apart from society, voting for personal interest over the interests of society as a whole. Today, the deal is harder, more fraught.

Choose the adjective: victim, sufferer, survivor or a person who had polio. I am personally most comfortable with the last iteration, it places the disease in the proper perspective, significant but not all defining. The reality is that it gives me no magical insight that extends beyond my own experiences and reflections. I am not an expert in disease vectors, the politics of vaccination or even the idea of a social contract. I am a person who had polio and as a consequence have thought about it long and hard. I know it is a horrible thing to get, to live with but life is full of horrible things. Polio may not be something I can shake but it is certainly something I am learning overcome, or so I like to think.

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