Thursday, May 5, 2016

Summers of Fear

As I’ve said before, I don’t have or plan to ever have television in my house. What I do have is a nice flat screen TV with a dvd/vcr player AND a subscription to Amazon Prime with a Fire Stick which allows viewing on said flat screen. AP has tons of great movies, TV series, and documentaries. I’ll never run out of something to watch--and can guarantee myself decent and educational viewing.
I was one of the last batch of “war babies”, and one of my earliest memories is how a sunny summer could turn suddenly dark at the word “polio”. If you’re too young to remember those days--and even if you’re not--I recommend “A Paralyzing Fear”.

But if you don’t have access to the documentary, here’s a little history/background on the scourge which affected generations of children in the United States and still continues to plague many countries around the world.
Polio is a virus carried by human waste. From the intestines it travels to the nervous system where it attacks the cells which send messages to the muscles. By 1951, three types of the disease had been pinpointed.
The first great polio epidemic occurred in 1916 (to be followed by the devastating post-World War I influenza pandemic). Though the disease waned for a few years, it recurred in 1921--which is when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt contracted it.
1931 was another epidemic year. By now there was the iron lung to breathe for those whose lung muscles were affected. Research focused on prevention rather than a cure, but the first vaccine had disastrous results. Many who received it died or became paralyzed.
In 1933 there were 5000 new cases; 10,000+ in 1943; 25,000 in 1946; 27,000 in 1948; 33,000 in 1950; and 59,000 in 1952.
During World War II, polio became a “third front” when the disease surfaced among otherwise healthy American troops serving in the Middle East. Heretofore affecting mostly children, the virus found new meat on which to feed.
Two doctors, Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin, disagreed on the best kind of vaccine. Salk used the killed virus, while Sabin used live. But by 1955 Salk’s vaccine (given by injection) began to be used around the nation. I remember my mother dropping me off at the doctor’s office to get my “shot”. I was a believer and rolled up my sleeve without question. Eventually Sabin’s vaccine given by mouth became the standard.
Though there were scattered epidemics in 1958-59, polio has now been eradicated in the United States.
If you are within ten or twelve years of my age, you remember “The Mother’s March on Polio”. On one night of the year, for a single hour, mothers went house to house if the porch light was on and collected money to benefit polio victims. Old-time entertainer Eddie Cantor coined the term “March of Dimes”. I remember tagging along on these expeditions and playing with other children while our mothers totaled the night’s take and prepared to turn it in.
I also remember summers when we were exiled to our own backyards for fear of contracting the disease: no movies, no public swimming pool, and only selected contact with other children. "Don't sit around in a wet bathing suit!" my mother warned regularly. Of course, that wasn't going to give me polio, but apparently FDR sat around in his the day before he became ill. Years later, when I went away to college, I remember the girls navigating the campus with braces, crutches, and wheelchairs because the vaccine had come too late. Simply put, I was lucky to escape until it was ready for use.
The documentary makes use of interviews with now-adult polio victims, discusses FDR’s battle and Warm Springs, Georgia; how he convinced his former law partner Basil O’Connor to take over the push for funds for treatment and rehabilitation; and how the country finally came together fight not only a global war but the disease that threatened a generation.

Related Links

The last naturally-occurring case of polio in the United States occurred in 1979. 

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