In light of the current concern over Ebola, and other diseases, it is good to get some perspective on what has happened in the past in similar situations.
According to American historian William O'Neill, "Paralytic poliomyelitis (its formal name) was, if not the most serious, easily the most frightening public health problem of the postwar era." He noted that the epidemics kept getting worse and its victims were usually children. By 1952, it was killing more of them than was any other communicable disease. In the 20 states that reported the disease back in 1916, 27,363 cases were counted. New York alone had 9,023 cases, of which 2,448 (28%) resulted in death, and a larger number in paralysis. However, polio did not gain national attention until 1921, when Franklin D. Roosevelt, former vice presidential candidate and soon to be governor of New York, came down with a paralytic illness, diagnosed at the time as polio. At the age of 39, Roosevelt was left with severe paralysis and spent most of his presidency in a wheelchair.
Subsequently, as more states began recording instances of the disease, the numbers of victims grew larger. Nearly 58,000 cases of polio were reported in 1952, with 3,145 people dying and 21,269 left with mild to disabling paralysis. In some parts of the country, concern assumed almost the dimensions of panic. According to Olson, "parents kept children home from school, avoided parks and swimming pools, and played only in small groups with the closest of friends."
Many famous people were polio victims; most were able to overcome their disabilities, while others were less fortunate. Itzhak Perlman, one of the world's finest violinists, was permanently disabled at age four, and still plays sitting down. Actor Donald Sutherland, President Roosevelt, writer Arthur C. Clarke, writer Robert Anton Wilson, actress Mia Farrow, singer-musician Neil Young, Olympic dressage rider Lis Hartel, actor Alan Alda, musician David Sanborn, singer Dinah Shore, singer Joni Mitchell, former Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, director Francis Ford Coppola, nuclear physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, actor Lionel Barrymore, and Congressman James H. Scheuer were infected.
As the fear of polio increased each year, funds to combat it increased from $1.8 million to $67 million by 1955. Research continued during those years, but, writes O'Neill, "everything scientists believed about polio at first was wrong, leading them down many blind alleys . . . furthermore, most researchers were experimenting with highly dangerous 'live' vaccines. In one test, six children were killed and three left crippled."
It was critical that Salk develop the trust of the U.S. public for his experiments and the mass tests that would become necessary. An associate of his noted, "That boy really suffers when he sees a paralytic case. You look at him and you see him thinking, 'My God, this can be prevented'." An article in Wisdom notes that at one point, "he even thought of giving up virus research":
"But as he was sitting in a park and watching children play, he realized how important his work was. He saw that there were thousands of children and adults who would never walk again and whose bodies would be paralyzed. He realized his awesome responsibility, and so he continued his task with renewed vigor."
On April 12, 1955, Dr. Thomas Francis, Jr., of the University of Michigan, the monitor of the test results, "declared the vaccine to be safe and effective." The announcement was made at the University of Michigan, exactly 10 years to the day after the death of President Roosevelt. Five hundred people, including 150 press, radio, and television reporters, filled the room; 16 television and newsreel cameras stood on a long platform at the back, and 54,000 physicians, sitting in movie theaters across the country, watched the broadcast on closed-circuit television. Eli Lilly and Company paid $250,000 to broadcast the event. Americans turned on their radios to hear the details, department stores set up loudspeakers, and judges suspended trials so everyone in the courtroom could hear. Europeans listened on the Voice of America. Paul Offit writes about the event:
- "The presentation was numbing, but the results were clear: the vaccine worked. Inside the auditorium Americans tearfully and joyfully embraced the results. By the time Thomas Francis stepped down from the podium, church bells were ringing across the country, factories were observing moments of silence, synagogues and churches were holding prayer meetings, and parents and teachers were weeping. One shopkeeper painted a sign on his window: 'Thank you, Dr. Salk.' 'It was as if a war had ended', one observer recalled."
- Historical perspective is very helpful when considering actions of the clown brigade attempting to handle our current national disease issues.
- When growing up, I went to school with several kids who had to deal with the effects of Polio. The parents were sure to get us kids vaccinated. Let's hope nothing like Polio comes around again.
- Thanks again, Dr. Salk.