A reminder of a very deadly epidemic in my own lifetime: polio. It suddenly surged in the child populations starting in 1952. I remember that time period with dread and wonder for I was part of the attempts at creating the first (with flaws) vaccinations for that destructive disease. It gives us clues as to why so many are scared of vaccinations for one batch of vaccinations was a failure, making some children sick and killing a couple.
Sixty years ago, polio was one of the most feared diseases in the U.S.
This is no exaggeration. The effects of this disease was horrible. I remember very well how bad it was, it happened to friends of my family.
As the weather warmed up each year, panic over polio intensified. Late summer was dubbed “polio season.” Public swimming pools were shut down. Movie theaters urged patrons not to sit too close together to avoid spreading the disease. Insurance companies started selling polio insurance for newborns.
Along with Valley Fever, polio scared all the parents in the Southwest because we were in perpetual ‘early to full summer.’ In Wisconsin, where I lived when I got the polio vaccination, it was a summer problem.
The fear was well grounded. By the 1950s, polio had become one of the most serious communicable diseases among children in the United States.
It hit children like a hammer. The present disease hammers the elderly.
In 1952 alone, nearly 60,000 children were infected with the virus; thousands were paralyzed, and more than 3,000 died. Hospitals set up special units with iron lung machines to keep polio victims alive. Rich kids as well as poor were left paralyzed.
The iron lungs saved many lives. But the survivors usually had serious disabilities especially difficulting walking.
Then in 1955, the U.S. began widespread vaccinations. By 1979, the virus had been completely eliminated across the country.
Vaccinations work. They are not perfect, nothing is perfect but they are a billion times better than no vaccinations.
Now polio is on the verge of being eliminated from the world. The virus remains endemic in only two parts of the globe: northern Nigeria and the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Muslim war zones and sub-Saharan Africa still have problems.
Franklin D. Roosevelt contracted polio 12 years before he became president. Roosevelt concealed the extent to which he suffered from polio, but he acknowledged having it. His presidency put polio front and center on the national stage. In 1938, Roosevelt founded the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis and spearheaded the March of Dimes for polio research. In 1946, President Harry Truman declared polio a threat to the United States and called on Americans to do everything possible to combat it.
It had to be ignored during WWII. But was really bad in Europe after the war due to all the devastation from the Nazi war machine and battling Hitler. It took TEN YEARS to finally get a vaccination going!
“The fight against infantile paralysis cannot be a local war,” Truman declared in a speech broadcast from the White House. “It must be nationwide. It must be total war in every city, town and village throughout the land. For only with a united front can we ever hope to win any war.”
The battle of science against disease, however, wasn’t as smooth and simple as movie house newsreels from the time depicted it. At one point, a botched batch of vaccine paralyzed and even killed some of the recipients.
Salk was first. I actually got my shot from him at the university back then, I was quite a small child, still have the mark on my arm from the vaccination.
Salk’s main rival in the vaccine race, Albert Sabin at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, couldn’t gain political support in the U.S. for what he viewed as his superior vaccine. So at the height of the Cold War, he tested it in the Soviet Union instead.
The first successful demonstration of a polio vaccine was by Hilary Koprowski in 1950, with a live attenuated virus which people drank. This vaccine, however, was not approved in the United States. An inactivated polio vaccine, developed a few years later by Jonas Salk, came into use in 1955. Another oral polio vaccine was developed by Albert Sabin and came into commercial use in 1961. It is on the World Health Organization’s List of Essential Medicines, the safest and most effective medicines needed in a health system.
Back to the article:
Both Salk’s and Sabin’s vaccines are still used today. But Sabin’s version, which requires just two drops in a child’s mouth, proved much easier to use in mass immunization campaigns.
In April 1955 more than 200 000 children in five Western and mid-Western USA states received a polio vaccine in which the process of inactivating the live virus proved to be defective. Within days there were reports of paralysis and within a month the first mass vaccination programme against polio had to be abandoned. Subsequent investigations revealed that the vaccine, manufactured by the California-based family firm of Cutter Laboratories, had caused 40 000 cases of polio, leaving 200 children with varying degrees of paralysis and killing 10.
Poor processing caused a disaster.
The Cutter incident had an ambivalent legacy. On the one hand, it led to the effective federal regulation of vaccines, which today enjoy a record of safety `unmatched by any other medical product’. On the other hand, the court ruling that Cutter was liable to pay compensation to those damaged by its polio vaccine—even though it was not found to be negligent in its production—opened the floodgates to a wave of litigation. As a result, `vaccines were among the first medical products almost eliminated by lawsuits’. Indeed, the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program was introduced in 1986 to protect vaccine manufacturers from litigation on a scale that threatened the continuing production of vaccines. Still, many companies have opted out of this low-profit, high-risk field, leaving only a handful of firms to meet a growing demand (resulting in recent shortages of flu and other vaccines).
The hysteria continues year after year. So many people have to die or be disabled due to this and it is annoying now how people cling to this matter to the point of creating conditions for mass deaths due to irrational fears today.
The contemporary climate of risk aversion and predatory litigation deters the introduction of new vaccines and discourages innovation in a field which boasts some of the most impressive achievements of modern medicine. To protect vaccine development—and ultimately public health —Offit proposes that the option of suing vaccine manufacturers should be stopped and that compensation should only be available through the official programme.
The destruction of our entire economy, the impoverishment of all civilization, the collapse of nations AND the mass deaths of millions…all because they are scared of producing a vaccination that might kill a handful of people accidentally. This is what a nightmare we are in right now. It is insane. Getting over this will require some very difficult measures.