(SOURCE) It’s a long way from central Oklahoma to Syria, but one of America’s last iron lung survivors says she’s a living reminder that an outbreak of polio anywhere in the world is a danger everywhere.
Martha Ann Lillard, now 65, has spent most of the past six decades inside an 800-pound machine that helps her breathe. News this month that at least 13 children have been paralyzed by a resurgence of polio in Syria — where the disease had been eradicated since 1999 — filled her with sadness and dread, she told NBC News. At least four additional cases have been confirmed in the country, the World Health Organization said Tuesday.
“If my mother would have had the opportunity to give me the vaccine, she would have done that,” says Lillard, who was a kindergartner in 1953 when she woke up with a sore throat that quickly progressed to something much worse — a life-threatening infection with poliovirus.
“To let somebody go through what I went through and what other children went through. What if people had to do that again? It would be just unbelievable.”
U.S. health experts agree. America’s last outbreak of polio was in 1979, and though risk of reintroduction of the disease is low, they say that growing pockets of unvaccinated children are raising concerns that people may have forgotten the panic over the disease that crippled Lillard — and how easily it could return.
“Scenarios for polio being reintroduced into the U.S. are easy to image and the disease could get a foothold if we don’t maintain high vaccination rates,” says Dr. Greg Wallace, a team leader for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, where he heads the measles, mumps, rubella and polio epidemiology branch.
“Syria is a good example,” he adds. “They didn’t have any cases. Then they stopped vaccinating for two or three or four years and what do you have?”
What you have, according to the World Health Organization, is more than a dozen children permanently paralyzed in Syria, where conflict and a humanitarian crisis have interrupted inoculation efforts that provide a lifetime of protection with just a few doses of vaccine.
It’s a heartbreaking setback in a battle against a disease that’s on the verge of eradication worldwide, with polio still endemic in only three countries, Afghanistan, Nigeria and Pakistan, WHO says.
Infectious disease experts in Germany this month warned that Syria’s outbreak could endanger Europe as tens of hundreds of refugees flee the war-torn country and settle in places that have been polio-free for decades.