Manitoba·Opinion

I survived polio, but now I fear others will needlessly suffer from it

Winnipeg polio survivor Wes Hazlitt fears an increase in cases because of fewer vaccinations, and he cannot imagine seeing thousands of children on ventilators because of a preventable disease.

Once almost eradicated, polio is being recorded in some countries for the first time in years

An old black and white image of a doctor, kneeling down, and injecting a needle with the polio vaccine into the arm of a young boy, standing in front of him.
Thanks to the introduction of the polio vaccine, the last case of polio was reported in Manitoba in 1960. (CBC Archives)

This column is an opinion by Wes Hazlitt, a polio survivor, current president of the Post-Polio Network in Manitoba and a representative in polio support groups across Canada, the United States and Australia. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

As a polio survivor enduring the lifelong impact, increasing pain and weakness caused by polio, recent events in the U.K. and New York state alarm me.

I worry that we could face another polio epidemic. 

I cannot imagine seeing thousands of children being kept alive on ventilators and overwhelming hospitals because of a disease that is easily preventable with a course of a proven vaccine and booster. 

Up until the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, I was hard-pressed to find anyone — other than friends, relatives and others, like me, who had contracted polio — who knew anything about polio. 

Due to massive uptake of the polio vaccine starting in the 1950s, polio has been largely eradicated in North America and most areas in the world.

A teenaged boy stands on a sidewalk, leaning on a pair of crutches.
Wes Hazlitt, shown here in 1968, contracted polio when he was just 13 months old. He's spent his life enduring the "impact, increasing pain and weakness caused by polio," he says. (Submitted by Wes Hazlitt)

Most polio survivors are in their 60s, 70s and 80s, but many of us who recovered from the immediate paralytic effects of polio have gone on to develop post-polio syndrome, which has led to new paralysis, weakness, muscle and joint pain and difficulty swallowing and breathing. We now require new supports and treatment to continue living.

Yet polio is no longer talked about in medical school and hasn't been for decades, so it has been increasingly difficult to find a doctor, physiotherapist or occupational therapist with any knowledge of polio, its impact on humans and how to manage it. So I worry about what will happen if we are impacted by a new wave of polio.

Chances are, you do not know anyone who had polio … because the vaccines have been effective in eradicating it.- Wes Hazlitt

With the advent of COVID-19, those who oppose vaccination have used their new platform to misinform and create doubt in parents about the safety and efficacy of the polio vaccine.

Also due to the impact COVID-19 had on access to our medical community, many children have missed out on their normal course of vaccinations for childhood diseases, and that includes the polio vaccine.

This, coupled with the anti-vaccine sentiment in social media, makes me concerned about the new spread of this debilitating disease that can cause paralysis and death.

Chances are, you do not know anyone who had polio as a child or adult, because the vaccines have been effective in eradicating it in Canada and most other countries across the world. 

WATCH | Officials see rise in polio cases in U.S. : 

100s could be infected with polio in New York, health officials say

2 months ago
Duration 2:19
A health official in New York State says hundreds of people could be infected with the polio virus.

There are a couple of countries in the world, particularly Afghanistan and Pakistan, that still have new cases of polio. This means that children and adults who are not vaccinated can contract the disease and spread it to hundreds of others while they are asymptomatic and unaware that they have polio.

Recently though, we're seeing cases in countries where it was once eradicated (or close to being so).

The fact is, vaccines do work.- Wes Hazlitt

This year, in New York State, officials recorded the first case of polio in more than a decade. It has resulted in the paralysis of one young man. That case was genetically linked to one in Israel, although that does not mean the patient travelled there, officials said, and there are now signs polio is spreading within that community.

Polio has also been found in wastewater in the U.K. and in Israel where this year alone, several children have contracted paralytic polio.

Multiple cases of paralytic polio in children have been identified in Ukraine since the start or the conflict in that country as millions of Ukrainians have been unable to access vaccines and have been forced to flee their homes.

I fear that millions of children are now at risk of developing polio, due to the interruption of regular medical care and the interruption of the worldwide campaign to eradicate polio, coupled with the current anti-vaccine sentiment. 

The fact is vaccines do work. I am thankful to Dr. Jonas Salk and Dr. Albert Sabin for the polio vaccine. It has saved millions of lives and prevented millions of cases of permanent paralysis in both young children and adults.

I encourage you to speak with your physician to ensure your polio vaccine and your children's vaccines are up to date.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Wesley Hazlitt

Freelance contributor

Wesley Hazlitt is the current president of the Post-Polio Network in Manitoba and a representative in polio support groups in Canada, the United States and Australia. Wesley contracted paralytic polio in 1953 at the age of 13 months. He currently requires a power wheelchair and multiple other aids to manage daily.

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