Six was an unlucky number to a kid on summer break in Cabarrus County during the 1950s and 1960s.
That’s because if a half-dozen cases of polio were diagnosed at one time among children here, it meant public swimming pools would close, baseball and softball seasons would be put on hiatus and movie theater doors would be shuttered – all attempts to keep youths from congregating and spreading the highly contagious disease.
Summer, the time when most polio outbreaks occurred, would have to be sacrificed.
“It frequently happened, and kids were very disappointed,” said Dr. Linny Baker, 80, a retired Cabarrus County pediatrician, who recalls those days. “But that of course went away quickly once the vaccine came out.”
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Baker spent the bulk of his career in private practice, leaving after 40 years to serve with Cabarrus Health Alliance. In March, the alliance honored Baker by naming its pediatric unit the Dr. Linny M. Baker Pediatric Clinic.
Baker retired from the Health Alliance in February after 10 years, when he filled roles including board chairman, medical director and pediatrician. According to a news release issued by the Health Alliance, several colleagues and Baker’s family attended the naming ceremony to express their gratitude for Baker’s work providing pediatric health care in the community.
When asked to look back upon his half-century career and come up with the medical advance that most affected his young patients, Baker didn’t hesitate to point out immunizations.
“It was the most important thing that happened in medicine in the last 50 years,” he said.
Every era experiences medical breakthroughs that become game-changers, like the introduction of penicillin in the 1940s. During Baker’s time as a pediatrician, beginning in 1963, it was the wide use of vaccines for various childhood diseases, some of which could be fatal.
“We saw a lot of diseases then that we don’t see now because of immunizations,” said Baker. “We were still seeing polio when I came into practice in 1963.”
Polio struck North Carolina the hardest in 1948, when 2,516 cases were diagnosed, but it lingered and caused fear for two more decades before two different immunizations – one a 1950s vaccination containing inactive polio virus, the other a vaccine given orally in the 1960s – eradicated the disease from the country.
Baker recalls community efforts in the late 1960s to set up mass immunizations at 14 different clinics throughout the county.
“We did it on Sundays after church. You could drive in and get it. You didn’t have to get out of your car,” he said. “We think we immunized 80 percent of the county.”
Polio may have been the scariest disease in the community, but it wasn’t the only disease raging through the county at the time.
“In the winter time, we would get a measles epidemic going,” said Baker. “That was an awful disease.”
Measles caused high fever and an unmistakable red rash.
Baker practiced for only a year or two before the measles vaccination became available in the county. Today, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the measles vaccination reduces the chance of catching the disease by 99 percent.
Back then, said Baker, vaccines were met with relief by parents. Although immunizations have experienced a backlash in recent years, sparked mainly by a now-disproven claim linking autism to the MMR vaccine, Baker said he’s sure they’ve saved many young lives in the county over the last 50 years.
Recently, Baker had lunch with a former patient he treated for infantile meningitis nearly 35 years earlier, when she was 7 months old.
“She’s doing well,” said Baker, who spent an hour learning about her career as a veterinarian in Washington.
The disease spared her life but took her hearing, a common casualty back then. It’s a disease a pediatrician practicing today wouldn’t even check for, said Baker, thanks to the development of an immunization to prevent it.
“When you see a 7-month-old with a 103-degree fever, you don’t have to worry about meningitis anymore,” he said. “The vaccine eliminated that.”
Lisa Thornton is a freelance writer: firstname.lastname@example.org.