SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) – Sixty years ago, polio was one most feared diseases in the United States; children were especially susceptible. South Dakota native Mark Sternhagen was only 9 months old when he caught it. He sees parallels in today’s current pandemic and hopes people can learn from the past.
Mark Sternhagen was born in Scotland, South Dakota in 1956. He says, at the time, his hometown wasn’t a high-priority area for the polio vaccine.
When it did come to town that December, he was running a temperature and the protocol at the time didn’t allow for a vaccination if you had one.
“All my siblings had been vaccinated; they didn’t catch it. Obviously, we did everything together. My cousins, who were in the same age group, also vaccinated, didn’t get it,” Sternhagen said.
Later that summer, during what they called ‘polio weather,’ at only 9 months old, Sternhagen got polio.
“There isn’t any question in my mind that if I had been vaccinated, I wouldn’t have gotten polio,” Sternhagen said.
While it cost him his ability to walk, he didn’t let that stop him from believing in vaccines.
“The idea that people would choose not to vaccinate for COVID as I said, it really bothers me,” Sternhagen said
He says he links a lot of people’s fears of the COVID-19 vaccine to what they read on social media. A popular skepticism is that people claim it came out too quickly.
“I’m always like, with the vaccine, I’m like, ‘ask your doctor. What’s he think?’” Sternhagen said.
With that in mind, we reached out to Avera Dr. David Basel for answers.
“In some ways – vaccine hesitancy, we’re, kind of, victims of our own success through the ages. People have not seen a lot of these illnesses that we have been able to prevent with vaccines,” Dr. Basel said.
He says, during the polio epidemic, scientists were limited by the technology of the time.
“It used to take 10 to 20 years to come up with a vaccine, and now we’re down to where it can take six months to come up with a vaccine, and so the advance of technology, that study-march forward, building on what we’ve learned before that has just been remarkable,” Basel said.
With COVID-19, Sternhagen says his real fear now comes from giving it to someone else, and that the herd immunity route could cause more harm than good.
“Natural herd immunity had 2,500 years to stop polio… and it never happened: it just kept getting worse and worse,” Sternhagen said.
He hopes that learning from the past can help heal our future.
In South Dakota, everyone age 16 and older is eligible to receive a vaccine. Several locations now offer walk in appointments for a shot.