This arti­cle is part 5 of 7 in the series Other Bad Bugs We Have Known

Polio struck fear and ter­ror across America, espe­cial­ly for par­ents, through­out the first half of the 20th cen­tu­ry. Images of chil­dren in wheel­chairs, on crutch­es, in leg braces, and with leg defor­mi­ties appeared con­stant­ly in news­pa­pers and mag­a­zines across the coun­try. Pictures of row after row of children’s heads pro­trud­ing from big met­al cylin­ders called iron lungs hor­ri­fied the nation. Children died. Adults died. There was no cure. There is still no cure. Panic, dread, and despair gripped the nation.

Then a mir­a­cle hap­pened. In 1955, Jonas Salk devel­oped a vac­cine. With the announce­ment of the suc­cess­ful results of the clin­i­cal tri­al, church bells rang, fac­to­ry whis­tles blew, car horns honked, and peo­ple took to the streets in cel­e­bra­tion. Grateful par­ents glad­ly took their chil­dren to get vaccinated.

Salk’s vac­cine was one of the biggest med­ical advance­ments in American his­to­ry. It was called “The shot heard around the world.” People across the globe rejoiced.

But the vac­cine was not per­fect. It was far less effec­tive than our cur­rent Covid 19 vac­cines. Nevertheless, par­ents were more than will­ing to take the chance. They knew the odds were great­ly in their favor. They took the chance, not only for their own chil­dren, but for all humanity.

Nowadays, too many peo­ple are too self­ish and self-cen­tered to care about any­one but them­selves. Get vac­ci­nat­ed to help end the pan­dem­ic, “Not me!” Wear a mask, “Not me!” Social dis­tance, “Not me!” Listen to the advice of near­ly nine­ty-nine out of a hun­dred doc­tors, “Not me!” They cling to their “right” to infect oth­er peo­ple and pro­long our cur­rent pandemic.

You might quib­ble with me call­ing the polio vac­cine a “mir­a­cle” because it wasn’t a straight-up-Touch-the-Hem-of-His-gar­ment type of mir­a­cle. However, mil­lions of peo­ple were pray­ing for it: peo­ple of every race, every reli­gion, every social and eco­nom­ic class, and all polit­i­cal par­ties. And their prayers were answered. Maybe you don’t asso­ciate prayers with mir­a­cles, but a lot of us still do.

Maybe we can agree to call it a “med­ical mir­a­cle,” or if you pre­fer, a “great sci­en­tif­ic break­through.” Seems to me that prayer, mir­a­cles, and science—when used to uplift mankind—are all on the same side.

Polio is caused by a virus. It is very con­ta­gious. It can strike a per­son at any age but pri­mar­i­ly affects chil­dren. 70% of peo­ple who con­tract the virus will have no vis­i­ble symp­toms (but its ill effects can appear years lat­er.) 25% will have flu-like symp­toms for a few days. In about 1 in 200 cas­es, the virus attacks the brain and/or spinal cord caus­ing paral­y­sis or defor­mi­ty. Of these cas­es, up to 10% die.

Strictly by the num­bers, polio was not the biggest viral killer in the U.S. dur­ing that time. Typhoid and tuber­cu­lous killed far more. The “Spanish Flu” pan­dem­ic, the worst until now, killed 675,000.

So why was polio so feared? Why did it play such an out­sized role in our nation’s his­to­ry? In the oth­er dis­eases, the vic­tim typ­i­cal­ly dies or gets well. Either way, from society’s view­point, it was out-of-sight-out-of-mind. Not so with polio. For every per­son who died, there were many who sur­vived with vis­i­ble and ter­ri­ble results. They were not out of sight. They were right there as a reminder. And America unit­ed to do some­thing about it.

Very lit­tle was under­stood about polio when President Franklin Roosevelt, the most famous polio vic­tim, con­tract­ed the dis­ease as an adult. He nev­er walked again. On the eve of WWII, he found­ed what became known as the March of Dimes to raise funds to find a solu­tion. And the dimes poured in from all across America. Lots of dimes. Lots of inspi­ra­tional fundrais­ing sto­ries. His lead­er­ship is why his image is hon­ored on the dime.

This was a true grass­roots move­ment. It was not gov­ern­ment-fund­ed. At that time, it was the largest pub­lic health exper­i­ment in American history.

The March of Dimes dis­trib­uted grants to Universities and sci­en­tists. One recip­i­ent was Jonas Salk. Although his solu­tion was bril­liant, he built on dis­cov­er­ies of sci­en­tists from all over the world who had stud­ied microbes for decades.

The same is true for our Covid vac­cines. It may seem like they devel­oped quick­ly. Some say too quick­ly. But this hap­pened only because the heroes of our vac­cines built on the work of sci­en­tists and doc­tors from around the world for the last thir­ty years.

Salk’s vac­cine was effec­tive but far from per­fect. As data came in, adjust­ments fol­lowed. The American peo­ple nev­er wavered. True, there were small, vocal groups of self-right­eous, self-cen­tered anti-vaxxers who demand­ed their free­dom to spread the dis­ease, but the vast major­i­ty did what was right for the country.

Then, in 1961, Albert Sabin devel­oped a dif­fer­ent type of vac­cine. It was cheap and easy to admin­is­ter. Instead of a shot, all you need­ed were a cou­ple of drops to pre­vent infec­tion and trans­mis­sion. Anyone could do it. This dis­cov­ery con­tributed to the world­wide effort to erad­i­cate polio.

But Sabin’s vac­cine also had prob­lems. Improvements to the vac­cine fol­lowed. Now we’re back to shots that are an incred­i­ble 99% safe and effec­tive. This is well beyond herd immu­ni­ty so the virus had nowhere to go. Polio was offi­cial­ly erad­i­cat­ed in the U.S. in 1979 and now, world­wide, polio occurs only in remote parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan where vac­cines are unavailable.

The fight against polio gave rise to the now com­mon med­ical prac­tices of “inten­sive care” and “reha­bil­i­ta­tion ther­a­py.” It was also impor­tant in advanc­ing the dis­abil­i­ty rights movement.

The erad­i­ca­tion of polio fol­lows the same steps as the oth­er dis­eases dis­cussed in this series of arti­cles: 1) A high­ly com­mu­ni­ca­ble and dead­ly dis­ease rav­ages the world. 2) The sci­en­tif­ic and med­ical experts devel­op a vac­cine. 3) The vast major­i­ty of peo­ple exer­cise com­mon sense and get vac­ci­nat­ed. 4) The dis­ease dis­ap­pears or becomes far less of a problem.

Use your com­mon sense. Get vac­ci­nat­ed for Covid 19. Let’s end this.

  • David made scaled-down, tra­di­tion­al Appalachian musi­cal instru­ments for chil­dren. Thousands of ele­men­tary stu­dents from across the state enjoyed his hands-on Appalachian music and her­itage pro­gram. He also worked with folks from six coun­ties for the cre­ation of the Appalachian Heritage Monument—a world-class venue that would rebrand Eastern Kentucky in a pos­i­tive light. (Still work­ing on it.) David lives in Valeria, Wolfe County, Kentucky.

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