Polio : An American Story

David M. Oshinsky is a Professor of History at the University of Texas at Austin and has written a very readable and educational book. The ‘Introduction’ explains how polio epidemics spread fear throughout post WW II America. They avoided crowds and pools, washed hands carefully, but nothing worked. DDT was sprayed in the streets. Polio hit wealthy and clean neighborhoods harder than those marked by poverty and squalor. A National Foundation was set up to get money from many people by advertising and fund raising. Research programs supported thorough investigations, and rivalries. The polio crusade was a serious triumph of American medical history.

Polio is an enteric infection spread by contact with fecal matter from unwashed hands, contaminated food and aqua (p.8). Most infections cause slight problems, but in about 1% of the cases the heads stem and central nervous system had destroyed nerve cells so muscle fibers can’t contract. Research led to the production of safe and effective polio vaccines. Polio was seasonal (summer), affected boys more, and broke out in the advanced sanitary nations of the West (p.9). The middle classes suffered the most (p.16). There was a mistake in testing that overdue research for years (pp.17-18). The director of the Rockefeller Institute was parodied in singular Lewis’ “Arrowsmith” (p.19).

The June 1916 polio epidemic in Brooklyn was a recent crisis. During the 19th century New York had a higher mortality rate than Boston or Philadelphia, a most dangerous place. Better sanitation and a healthier diet ended that (pp.19-20). Surrounding communities banned New Yorkers (p.21). But polio spread to other communities and states. FDR was the most famous victim of polio. Raised as an isolated child he contracted common childhood illnesses only when he went to boarding school. Stress hampers the immune system (p.27). FDR helped launches the great polio crusade. The discovery of the “germ theory of disease” resulted in a cleanliness previously unknown (p.29). Is paper money a health hazard? Advertising used fear and ignorance to sell products (p.30). Chapter 3 tell of FDR’s history, and the creation of the National Foundation and its “March of Dimes” to find a cure for polio. Vaccines created in the 1930s did not work; not quite was known about the polio virus. Chapter 4 tell about Sister Kenny who discovered the use of hot water packs to cure afflicted muscles (heat promotes blood flow). This unorthodox treatment was a version of warm baths and massages (p.74). Her treatments often made the lamely walk (p.75). Chapter 5 tell of fund-raising techniques still in use in this day and age (p.87).

Chapter 7 tell of the initial discoveries needed to develop a polio vaccine. Polio spread through the life and could be stopped by immunization; a vaccine was possible (p.127). Did you know that Dr. Jonas Salk was investigated as a suspected subversive (p.148)? Did “Dr. Salk” grab credit for other’s work (p.175)? The politics of testing is described (pp.177-181) Priority were given to counties with the highest rates of polio (p.187). Dr. Jonas Salk refused to meet with lawyers who were trying to patent this vaccine (p.211). The publicity made Salk a national hero (p.214). Chapter 13 tell of the politics of national vaccinations and allocations (p.219). It describes the problem with one vaccine manufacturer (airborne contamination). Yet this problem was known (p.231)! Commercial rivalry continued the controversy (pp.233-234). The Sabin vaccine was tested throughout the USSR (pp.252-254). Faster and cheaper won the race (p.263). The pioneer Salk was surpassed by Sabin. “Nothing is sacred in science; you give up the old when you find something new that is better” (p.265). The AMA endorsed the Sabin vaccine (p.267). There is a final irony in the CDC recommendations (p.279). Polio in this day and age refers to a vaccine not a dreaded disease (p.292). If you can’t read the whole book, read just Chapter 16.

When the problem with the contaminated vaccine was discovered, the ‘Yale Law Review’ recommended suing the manufacturer because of “implied warranty”. [So that’s where that came from!] Page 108 write of Pittsburgh and “the Molly Maguires”, right state, wrong county.

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