When science and Dr. Jonas Salk conquered polio

Aptly, last week marked the 100th birthday of Dr. Jonas Salk, who famously developed the polio vaccine in the mid-20th century, a beacon in the age of Ebola and the anti-vaccine crowd.

Back then, there was a refreshing simplicity to how the American people responded to a truly ravaging disease and contagion in the first half of the 20th century.

Oh, for the days of polio, when we were all in it together and shared faith in science and reason. Most people believed doctors, helped by government, would find a way to keep polio at bay. Now it seems the public is polarized even over science. The minor Ebola cases on our shores shed light on cracks in our cohesion.

Polio darkened many doors. My mother was stricken with polio as a 4-year-old girl in 1939. The late Benjamin C. Bradlee, the celebrated editor of The Washington Post, was briefly paralyzed by polio as a teen in 1935. Franklin Delano Roosevelt got polio as a man of 39 and never walked again. He didn't let it interfere with his political career.

But now the current scare raises a question: What does the anti-vaccine crowd say about the quest for an Ebola vaccine? I ask because medicine is likely to deliver help and immunization on a mass scale.

The people who really need that help are in Africa, where Ebola is an epidemic. In the United States, only two brave nurses who treated a desperately ill African man have contracted the illness, through contact with body fluids.

“There's a special flavor of fear here,” Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

Then he declared an Ebola vaccine is in sight. “We are fast-tracking a vaccine....By December or January, we'll have a much larger trial in West Africa.”

Fauci spoke at the Washington Ideas Forum last week, organized by the Atlantic and the Aspen Institute. No word from Jenny McCarthy, the celebrity who started the anti-vaccine craze which, doctors say, led to outbreaks of whooping cough, measles, mumps and bacterial meningitis.

“Still they (in the anti-vaccine faction) march on,” said Paul. A. Offit, director of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.

My father, a doctor at UCLA, vividly captures how polio affected his American boyhood in his memoir. E. Richard Stiehm grew up in Madison, Wisconsin. Here is an excerpt.

“Every summer a curtain of fear engulfed the city. I knew it caused crippling paralysis, inability to breathe, even death. Pictures of children in iron lungs. all but their heads entombed in a cylindrical metal chamber — a fate worse than death to my claustrophobic mind.

“It was impossible to ignore the risk of the disease, because all the kids in the neighborhood were grounded. No swimming, no movies, no trips downtown, no visits to a household with a sick child. Mother would quiet my protests: ‘Do you want to spend the rest of your life in an iron lung?’

“I went downtown to the city health department for a gamma globulin shot, thought to prevent the disease for a few months. This program was sponsored by the March of Dimes, an organization founded by President Roosevelt, after polio afflicted him in 1921.

“Judy Hicks (my mother) was stricken with polio during a family vacation in the mountains of Colorado. After her uncle, an MD, noted her limping, she was taken to Denver and hospitalized for four weeks. The polio had affected both her arms and legs. When well enough to be discharged now in a full body cast, she returned to Madison by train accompanied by her mother.”

Polio left its mark on people, on their psyches as well as bodies.

So here’s wishing Dr. Salk, who would have turned 100 on Oct. 28, a (belated) happy birthday.

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