IT HAS BEEN FIFTY YEARS since Thomas Francis mounted that podium in Ann Arbor and told the world what it so desperately wanted to hear: an effective polio vaccine had finally been produced. For most Americans today, the euphoria, the pure relief that greeted his announcement, is difficult to understand. They were not alive to experience the memories of polio summers before 1955—the images of shut down movie theaters and empty swimming pools, the panicked warnings of parents to their children, the daily counts of polio victims in the newspapers, the sight of toddlers struggling to use their leg braces and hospital wards lined wall-to-wall with iron lungs.”
I’m not sure what made me decide to re-read Polio: An American Story, but I quickly realized a pandemic is not the time to read about an epidemic. I almost DNFed several times, but the memory of how much I loved this book the first time around made me stick with it. It is a great book but not as amazing as I remember.
Polio: An American Story is about the search for and production of polio vaccines in the US during the 1940s through 1960s. Much of the research was funded by the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, which was founded by Franklin D. Roosevelt after his battle with polio. The foundation is now known as the March of Dimes and Infantile Paralysis is now known as poliomyelitis aka polio. Particular focus is paid to the battle between Jonas Salk and his killed virus advocates versus Albert Sabin and his live virus advocates.
The book is fascinating and extremely readable. The author wrote it to be accessible to the average reader; there’s no unexplained medical terminology or waxing poetical about the winds of history which plague some other similar books. But it’s not perfect. The author clearly favored Jonas Salk over Albert Sabin. While discussing Salk’s vaccine more in depth than Sabin’s is understandable since Salk’s was approved and used before Sabin’s, it doesn’t explain why more attention is given to Salk’s personal and professional life than Sabin’s. I would have liked to see more time paid to Sabin and the other polio researchers. At the end of the book, the author mentions that the US has switched back to the killed virus vaccine due to safety concerns, but doesn’t say much about the development of that vaccine. I would have liked to have known more about it. But, overall, it is an excellent book and worth reading.
Random facts and things I learned from Polio: An American Story:
- Polio was not the most deadly childhood infection, but it had the most visible victims. The sight of small children confined to wheelchairs or on crutches struck fear in the hearts of parents. Most families knew someone who had had polio, and of course, everyone knew FDR was a polio survivor.
- It’s believed polio was an endemic disease for much of human history. Epidemics started after modern sanitation and hygiene practices were adopted. Basically, once society got modern sewers and water treatment facilities, we stopped being constantly exposed to it. Then when a population was exposed to it, there would be an outbreak.
- During production of the Salk killed virus vaccine, it was discovered that polio is airborne.
- The Salk killed virus vaccine required three doses and annual booster shots. The Sabin live attenuated vaccine conferred lifelong immunity after one to three oral doses (depending on the number of strains per dose). But, a person who receives the oral vaccine can shed the virus, infecting unvaccinated contacts. Around a dozen people per year in the US caught polio this way in the 1980s and 90s.
- In 2000, the US switched back to a killed virus vaccine in order to eliminate vaccine-related polio cases.
This feels a little too timely:
San Angelo, Texas, 1949. In early June, with the temperature nudging 100 and the polio count at sixty-one, the city council voted to close all indoor meeting places for a week. “Theater marquees went dark in San Angelo Thursday night,” said the Standard-Times. “There were no youngsters splashing in the municipal swimming pool during the day. No San Angelo churches will meet Sunday.” The lockdown was soon complete. Bars and bowling alleys shut their doors, professional wrestling was canceled at the high school, popular country bands like Snuffy Smith and the Snuff Dippers steered clear of town. So, too, did everyone else. Tourist traffic disappeared. Rumors spread about catching polio from an uncovered sneeze, from handling money, or from talking on the telephone. “We got to the point no one could comprehend,” a local pediatrician noted, “when people would not even shake hands.”