When Dr. Russell Thomas has a patient with concerns regarding the safety of vaccines, he dutifully shows them the data that debunk perpetuated false claims.
No, he tells them, mercury isn’t used as a preservative, vaccines don’t cause autism, and they don’t use live viruses.
And he has one compelling argument about what could happen if children aren’t vaccinated.
“I’m not afraid to pull up my pant legs and show them my braces,” he told Healthline. “It’s a why-not argument. I live in a rural area and people out here have a lot of common sense.”
Thomas, who was recently named the Texas Family Physician of the Year, wears $25,000 worth of orthotic braces every day as a result of contracting polio as a child. At 61 years old, he doesn’t even consider going up stairs and can’t walk more than 50 yards without a cane.
“It’s an important part of my life,” he said. “The more effects I feel, the more I’m convinced every child should be immunized so they can grow up healthy and make their own health decisions.”
Polio — formally known as poliomyelitis — is an extremely contagious infectious disease caused by the poliovirus. Approximately one in every 200 infections causes irreversible paralysis, including the muscles responsible for breathing.
On the Eve of the Polio Vaccine
The year before Thomas was born, there were nearly 58,000 cases of polio in the United States, a third of which caused some form of paralysis.
In 1954, the Salk vaccine, which consisted of dead poliovirus, was undergoing field trials. More than 1.8 million school children were given the vaccine as part of the largest controlled trial ever in U.S. history.
Thomas’ father, the late Dr. Raymond Thomas, had acquired samples of the vaccine through his work as the community doctor in Eagle Lake, Texas, a town of 3,700 people 60 miles west of Houston.
One day, the elder Thomas took the vaccines home with the intentions of administering them to his wife and newborn son, although they weren’t part of the trial. He eventually changed his mind and returned them.
“His conscience got the best of him and he took it back,” Thomas said. “What he did was the right thing.”
In late 1954, the younger Thomas was infected with paralytic polio. He would undergo more than a dozen surgeries as a child to combat polio’s effects on his legs.
Thousands of children like Thomas were also infected with polio that required different types of therapy, including the use of an iron lung.
“I got it the way most people got it. It’s not like I was running around the polio ward with my dad,” Thomas said. “The large majority of people who got polio did have upper respiratory problems and didn’t end up having 14 surgeries.”
In 1955, the Salk polio vaccine was declared safe and effective. Large-scale vaccination campaigns from the March of Dimes began shortly afterward, vaccinating every person healthy enough to receive it.
Due to this herd immunity strategy, the number of polio cases in the U.S. dropped to slightly more than 3,000 by 1960. It was considered eliminated in the U.S. in 1979.
Those efforts continue globally. As of 2013, there were only 416 reported polio cases worldwide, according to the World Health Organization. Only three countries, Afghanistan, Nigeria, and Pakistan are endemic for the disease.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says even one unvaccinated person who travels and becomes infected with polio could create a serious problem.
Destined for Medicine
Russell Thomas was destined for medicine and began assisting his father’s practice when he was 16. He plans to continue to practice medicine for as long as his health will let him.
Undergoing so many surgeries as a child, he can relate to people in his care. As a small town doctor, he cares for his patients from birth to death. That involves giving immunizations to children to protect them from an infection that continues to shape his life.
Russell says he wouldn’t undo polio from his life if he could because it was all part of creating who he was, including shaping events that led to meeting his wife, Robin, and raising two children.
But when parents are concerned about the safety of vaccination, Thomas can tell them quite frankly of its importance in saving lives and preventing unnecessary harm to children, even if their odds today are extremely low.
“I live this. If your kid is that 1 in a million chance, it’s not cool,” he said. “It’s not a cool thing to get something you could have prevented.”