After reading Nemesis by Philip Roth, I realized I knew very little about polio. I was so intrigued I thought there should be a book chronicling the disease and the discovery of its cure. Turned out there already was an excellent one, Polio: An American Story by David M. Oshinsky. I highly recommend it. Here are some of the highlights I found.

FDR was an unusual case of someone who got polio as an adult. He was sheltered as a child and didn’t build up much immunity. After a day of hanging out with kids at a camp, he went on a grueling run and swim race. His weakened immune system following exposure led to him contracting the virus.

Polio struck predominantly in the summer months, sometimes closing movie theaters and swimming pools, during severe outbreaks, in an attempt to limit the spread. The symptoms could be so mild that you couldn’t differentiate it from the flu or it could lead to permanent paralysis or death.

Polio was unique in that it hit harder among the middle and upper classes; because of better sanitation and overall cleanliness children there had less chance to gradually develop an immunity from low level exposure. The “germaphobes make themselves more susceptible to disease by not letting their immune systems develop as well” theory playing out.

The March of Dimes name was a play on a popular newsreel feature played before movies, March of Time. A combination of polio’s terror and some talented and inventive promotional strategies made the March of Dimes the most successful charity organization of its time, often raising more money annually than all other charitable causes put together.

Dr. Isabel Morgan was the first person to successfully test a killed-virus polio vaccine in a monkey. Soon after, she left her research position to marry and raise a family.

Breaking Bad fans will appreciate that killing a virus with formaldehyde while leaving the dead virus still strong enough to induce the body to create antibodies that will lead to immunity is a delicate process referred to as “cooking.”

Dr. Jonas Salk successfully tested a killed-virus polio vaccine in “The Biggest Public Health Experiment Ever” in 1954. When asked who owned the patent of his vaccine, Salk famously replied. “Well, the people, I would say. There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?”

Vaccines were often first tested on the researchers themselves and then their kids before being tested in human trials. There are examples of researchers who died from testing their own vaccines and injected themselves with diseases like Yellow Fever.

Salk, confident in his vaccine, wanted the 1954 trials to be conducted by giving all subjects the vaccine. Instead half received a placebo. Parents wanted their kids to receive the vaccine, but in the blind study, didn’t know which their kids received.

In the midst of the cold war, where many considered socialized medicine evil, the vaccine, invented through research funded by charitable donations to the March of Dimes, was sold to six private companies, who were accused of price gouging and collusion, and one of which botched the production of it, the injections giving people polio, which damaged the credibility of the vaccine. In Canada, a democratic country with socialized medicine, distribution of the vaccine was a success. (That’s straight from a purely objective account, although it’s obviously a topical “discussion starter.”)

President Eisenhower put Oveta Culp Hobby in charge of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. Mrs. Hobby was apparently as anti-government regulation as she was anti-socialized medicine. She left the drug companies alone to develop and distribute the vaccine, safely, and when one of them didn’t (The Cutter company of the six) she was forced to resign.

While the Salk vaccine was being tweaked in hopes of reaching a 90% effectiveness rate that Salk was hoping for, Albert Sabin was testing a live-virus vaccine in Russia that was testing as even more effective. In the sixties America switched over to the live-virus vaccine, which was easier and cheaper to distribute. It was given out on “Sabin Oral Sundays.” (Yeah, that’s what they called it.)

The two men were bitter rivals. Ironically, the Sabin live-virus vaccine was so effective, after a while, the only people in America still getting polio were the extremely few people who got it directly from the vaccine, so we switched back again to the killed-virus vaccine, which while slightly less effective wouldn’t cause the disease. And since polio has been nearly eradicated, there is little chance of an outbreak, so a combined effort by the two different vaccines ended up purging America of this dreaded disease. This all after both men had died.

Another benefit of Sabin’s live-virus vaccine is what is euphemistically called “passive vaccination” where those who ingest the vaccine shed the weakened virus back into their environment through their feces. Which then immunizes the unvaccinated public in a way they would probably prefer to not think about.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt was afflicted with polio long before he became president. He went to great lengths and pains to hide his disability. In 1997, a new memorial was put up for him which largely ignored his disability, claiming they were simply abiding with his wishes to appear able-bodied. Polio survivors wanted to show him to be heroic and disabled, reflecting a common attribute of polio survivors, who tend to excel in other areas due to an increased drive that carries over from overcoming their disability. A statue of FDR in his wheelchair ended up being included at the memorial.

Attempts to fully eradicate polio from the planet have been held up mostly in areas where theories that the vaccine has been purposely tainted to cause infertility or AIDS abound. A friend who saw me reading this book said he heard on NPR that a polio outbreak is happening currently in Syria.


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