As controversy continues over COVID-19 vaccine, a generation looks back at need for polio vaccine

Back in 1979 polio was eliminated from the US because of the vaccine, that generation says everybody wanted to get the shot
Posted at 4:40 PM, Aug 26, 2021
and last updated 2021-08-28 21:13:13-04

BILLINGS- As the controversy over the COVID-19 vaccine remains in the United States, those who have lived for decades through some of the worst viruses and diseases are wondering why.

Claire Leslie of Billings remembers living through polio well.

“Well it went on for a long time. It was almost every summer,” she said.

Leslie is a resident of St. John’s United and graciously agreed to talk to MTN News about life during polio.

“Well, we would not be able to go to the swimming pool or the other parks. We had to stay home,” she said.

Polio struck when she was young, but the polio vaccine was around for as much as 40 years. Leslie doesn’t quite remember getting the vaccine, because she got vaccines all the time.

“It was just another shot,” she said.

The disease caused paralysis and even President Franklin D. Roosevelt got it. But in 1979, polio was eliminated.

Leslie says looking back, no one from her generation, that she remembers, was against getting a vaccine. But she says the vaccine was different than Covid in that you could see the results.

“So, when you saw the results of polio, you want it to be vaccinated,” she said. “Everybody wanted to get the vaccine because they didn't want to be crippled. You could see the results.”

But now living through a global pandemic with so much uncertainty surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic and the vaccine, Leslie says she’s surprised.

“I would get every vaccine known to mankind,” she said. “You certainly don't travel overseas, and not get vaccinated for yellow fever. And all of us got vaccinated when we were children for smallpox. Everybody my age has a scar from smallpox.”

The evolution of vaccines has rich ties to the state of Montana. Scientist Maurice Hilleman from Miles City, who attended Montana State University and eventually landed a job at Merck, has saved millions of lives after inventing dozens of vaccines including hepatitis and measles, mumps, and rubella.

Sharon Peterson with the Montana Bioscience Alliance says his work should make Montanans proud of vaccines in general.

“People need to understand the science, and I'm hoping that knowing that somebody from Miles City, Montana, was the person, would really help understand the science,” she said.

She believes that if Hilleman were alive today, he may have helped develop the COVID-19 vaccine.

“He totally believed in what he did, and never took credit for saving lives,” said Peterson. “And I think he would be a little shocked that people are resisting.”

She also remembers getting the polio vaccine.

“I remember taking my small children to Lewistown for the vaccine. We knew we won't get polio, and that's really important.”

And while COVID is a completely different virus both women agree…. they feel stumped at why there’s so much controversy over vaccines.

“We were so glad to have it,” said Leslie. “I try and be generous and say everybody has their reason. I don't understand the reason, but they may have a medical reason that I don't understand. I just can't be judgmental about everything, even though I want to.”