Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Sid Salter: From Polio to Flu to Covid19, History Offers Lesson in Perserverance

As a child in the mid-1960s, I remember standing in a line out the door and into the parking lot of the school building where my twin sister and I received our oral polio vaccine. We stood with hundreds of rural Mississippians in the hot sun, waiting on that magic sugar cube.


The oral polio vaccine was delivered on sugar cubes, which we liked. But had they offered the vaccine on cube of dried cow manure, most children of my generation would have grimaced and taken it.

Why? Because poliomyelitis was a highly infectious viral disease of the brain and spinal cord that could cause disability or death. Last summer at the Rotary International Convention in Hamburg, Germany, I joined thousands of fellow Rotarians in celebrating our service organization’s contributions to all but the eradication of polio around the world.

But during my childhood – less than a decade removed from the U.S. polio epidemic of the 1950s, polio was widespread and scary and was a particular nightmare for children. We heard about the paralysis and the iron lungs, but at church and school and on the streets, we saw young polio victims struggling with wheelchairs, leg braces, and crutches.

In our community, there was a particularly beautiful, brave young lady trapped in the braces and crutches, her life forever changed. I still have friends who deal with the ravages of polio now in their golden years.

It was a nationwide phenomenon. In 1952 alone, almost 60,000 cases of paralytic polio were diagnosed in the U.S. A 1998 book called “A Paralyzing Fear: The Triumph Over Polio in the U.S.” recounted the nation’s psychic landscape:

“By then, polio epidemics were second only to the atomic bomb in surveys of what Americans feared most. Bomb and virus alike were terrible agents of destruction that might arrive at any moment to devastate a family, a community, or an entire nation. The disease seemed like an omnipresent threat, and its cure became a national responsibility. Epidemics struck other countries, but never as heavily as here.

“America was the center of polio, and the place where people knew they must work first, and fastest, to end it. They gave their time and money to help the growing swell of victims and to find a way to stem the rising tide of injury. When the call came, they even volunteered their children, millions of them, to test a new vaccine. The fear that had once driven Americans apart was now the force that pulled them together.”

Over the last 30 years, Rotarians helped immunize more than 2.5 billion children in 122 countries. So far, Rotary has contributed more than $1.8 billion toward eradicating polio worldwide. Today, polio remains endemic only in Afghanistan, Nigeria, and Pakistan.

If viral beasts like polio can be nearly eradicated by courageous science, people of good will, and global generosity, then certainly COVID-19 can likewise be overcome.

But “flattening the curve” of the spread of COVID-19 will require sacrifice, changes in our routines, and that most First World and American of maladies – boredom. So far, we’ve lost our athletic events and championships for a time. Big deal.

We are told to stock up, stay home, and hunker down. No amusement parks, cruises, or shopping centers. We’re asked to tap the brakes on club meetings (even my Rotary Club is canceling meetings for a time), church attendance, Broadway plays, and movie theaters. Not exactly heavy lifting.

Day care, K-12 schools, universities and colleges, all disrupted. Things will likely get worse before they get better.

But amid these COVID-19 challenges, I remember waiting in the hot sun for that magic sugar cube a lifetime ago. Like the nightmare of polio my sister and I faced, this too shall pass and who knows, the nation may actually be stronger for the lessons we learn together.

Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at sidsalter@sidsalter.com.


15 comments:

Anonymous said...

God bless pioneer's such as Jonas Salk. Hopefully soon another will step forward.

Anonymous said...

Before Jonas Salk there was Walter Reed. And before them, other men that laid the foundations. But there is nothing that Sid Salter can say that will prepare anyone for the future horrors of CRISPR engineered bioweapons. And desperate leaders who release them without understanding the ramifications.

Anonymous said...

My Dad, now in his mid-70's, was a victim of the 1950's polio epidemic. He was sent to stay at the Sister's of Mercy pediatric hospital in Vicksburg for quite some time while he battled the disease. Thankfully, he was able to recover from it with no long-term effects and has gone on to live a very healthy life. He doesn't talk much about his experience with that dreaded disease (maybe he just doesn't remember many of the details or has chosen to forget), but thank God for those Sisters that were sent to Vicksburg many years before to start that hospital.

PittPanther said...

Where are all these children from the 50s who had polio? Why aren't we seeing many people everyday stumbling around in braces? They should be in their 60s now, they mostly should be alive.

Was polio overblown? More fear than actual high number of victims?

Anonymous said...

Pitt Panther

Salk invented the vaccine in 1952. The first shots were given in 1954. I was exposed and quarantined the summer of 1953. By then, the cases had declined because enough parents understood well enough to recognize symptoms and quarantines were rapidly imposed.

At first polio only infected infants, then it shifted to children. Viruses evolve.

The members of my large high school class of 1965 who had polio are dead now. Those who were in iron lungs died long before.

Your anecdotal observation of " not seeing any polio victims" is worthless.
I would point out to you than when you see those in wheelchairs in their 70's or 80's, how the hell can you tell the reason?

If you are a Pitt Panther, you must have been at the bottom of your class. If you got out of college without learning the difference between anecdotal observations and empirical research, either Pitt was a poor college, you memorized well enough to pass through but couldn't retain it, or you must a been great at some sport so you took " basket weaving" type courses to pass through.

Anonymous said...

The near-miracle of the Salk vaccine and its eradication of polio as a day-to-day threat was enhanced by not only the development of the vaccine, but by the selfless act by Dr. Salk of not profiteering off of the patent to the vaccine but instead making the legal use of the vaccine free to the world. This cut out a lot of red tape and was a significant factor in fast-tracking the availability of the vaccine on a worldwide level.

The aforementioned CRISPR technology (another potential game-changer, if used responsibly) is being handled differently, with competition for the patents by numerous parties of interest. The most recent patents were given to Univ of California at Berkeley.

Let's see how the inevitable vaccine or treatment for COVID-19 is handled.

Anonymous said...

Yes. The Salk vaccine was free to everyone and Mississippi's county health departments gave the shots for free and in 1963 a newer vaccine was developed that was given on sugar cubes. It was distributed throughout the state for free, dispensed at schools and churches on a walk up and take it basis. Luckily no one decided to make it a "for profit" business.

Anonymous said...

A member of my extended family Is a polio survivor. She is in her early 70s and thankfully has enjoyed reasonably good health and was able to have a family. However, she still struggles with the physical effects of the disease. Her parents and sibling suffered through the years in many ways—emotionally, psychologically, financially, and socially. Pitt Panther is one of those cruel, uninformed, and heartless humans (not deserving to be called a “person”) who most likely has never had a family member or someone close to them who has experienced a life-changing disease or injury. My elderly mother worked in health care during the polio epidemic and says the cries of the pediatric polio patients in isolation still haunt her. Yes, polio was REAL and is still real for those and their families who have lived through it.

Anonymous said...

6:45 - Understanding that JJ has many stupid people make many stupid comments on this site, but you might just have won the prize for this month.

I'm a few years older than Sid, but remember as well taking the wait outside the elementary school standing in line for my sugar cube. Having had a couple of elementary school classmates who were suffering from polio at the time, it was a blessing to know that I might be able to avoid living as my friends were - one who spent a good part of his youth in an iron lung.

Where are they now? The ones I knew are alive and doing ok. Do they have the visible issues you are looking for? Yes and no. The friend that lived in his iron lung for a few years has no lingering effects that I can visibly see. Another one has undergone some surgeries required by the damage of polio, but also seems to be doing ok.

Sorry that because you can't see the effects you have trouble believing history. Maybe you ought to go find some Jewish folks and ask them whether the holocost actually occurred and was as bad as has been recorded.

Anonymous said...

Pitt Panther, I had a guy in my first grade class that was stricken with polio. I remember him well with crutches and braces on his legs. I graduated high school with him in 1976. He is a very close friend and I see him several times a week. However, today the crutches and braces are gone and he leads a normal life.

What point is it that you're trying to make?

Anonymous said...

"Endeavor to persevere."

Anonymous said...

I wonder if the newspapers back in the day blamed overreaction to polio as a way to impeach FDR? Also, does anyone know who FDR or Truman blames for polio? They must have had a scapegoat country or political party they attempted to shift blame to so they could score political points with their base.

Anonymous said...

Over the course of my practice (30 years) I have met numerous survivors of poliomyelitis. Some with little in the way of visible signs of its effects and others still hobbled or paralyzed by its ravages. Most if not all have very uplifting stories of how they conquered and survived their disease with the loving help of family, friends, doctors and faith.

Silence DoGood

Anonymous said...

"Endeavor to persevere."

Sid had a Faulkner moment.

Anonymous said...

I was born in July, 1956, and was one of the first group to get immunized against polio once the vaccine was available. A girl across the street was born in 1955, and was among the last to contract polio before the vaccine was discovered. She recovered, and I remember vividly her shriveled left leg as we grew up.

Once I began practicing medicine in the 1980s, I learned about post-polio syndrome, as we discovered some late effects of polio in adults who had contracted the disease years before, then apparently became "cured". It's still out there in those patients, and is still a new disease in some parts of the world (i.e., where the ayatollahs have forbidden vaccination, or some such rubbish).

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