A Previous ‘demic: Polio

August 9, 2020 at 4:14 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

When I go on my daily walk up to Prospect Park, I pass a number of mansions where people, of late, have been putting many books out on the steps or the sidewalk. Lockdown culling, I guess.. On a recent walk I picked up a copy of historian David Oshinsky’s 2005 study,  Polio: An American Story: The Crusade that Mobilized the Nation against the 20th Century’s Most Feared Disease.   It won the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for history.

I found it hard to imagine a book more relevant to the current crisis. Also,  I have always been fascinated , or more to the point, horrified by polio: around 1950, when we were both about three years old, a close cousin  developed polio, and I didn’t. I have never forgotten that near miss, especially as I walk vigorously around Brooklyn.

The first thing that struck me as I read Polio was what Oshinsky argues was a major cause of the disease, in contrast something I read recently about mortality rates in Ireland, between 1870 and 1950, as detailed in a book that my Irish book group read recently–that the Jews who emigrated from Eastern Europe to Dublin during that period had much lower death rates because they had higher levels of hygiene than the for the most part poor residents of Dublin. But the polio epidemic, at least for a long time, according to Oshinsky, happened among upper middle class and upper class families precisely because they had much higher levels of hygiene than the lower classes and had thus wiped out their own immunity. Wash your hands–sometimes!

Also striking were the details about the distribution of the Salk vaccine after it had been developed and approved. Mayor Wagner of New York and other leaders were “shocked to learned” that the Eisenhower administration had made no plans for the distribution of the vaccine, believing that the drug companies “could best handle it on their own.”(218) Neither the president nor his advisors believed that national distribution of the vaccine was a “legitimate government action”: it risked provoking outcries against “socialized medicine.” Also, such a federal distribution program would set a “undesirable precedent.”  Even the American Medical Association objected to injections being given by anyone but MDs in their offices. Eventually, the epidemic shifted to poorer families because they couldn’t afford the three shots of the vaccine that the more prosperous were able to pay for. And the cost of the covid-19 vaccine is…

Oshinsky also suggests, in a sort of testimony to those who think that the current pandemic is a hoax, that the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis–the March of-Dimes foundation–had overplayed the extent of the polio epidemic in the interest of raising larger and larger amounts of money, albeit money they spent to fight polio. And in a similar sort of nod to vaccine skeptics, Oshinsky reports that after a long war between Jonas Salk, the inventor of the first polio vaccine, and Albert Sabin, the inventor of a subsequent live-virus vaccine, the country switched, in the early 1960s, from the Salk to the Sabin vaccine, a vaccine that had been first tested on mentally ill incarcerated adults.  But in 1996 it switched back becauseit was being shown that Sabin vaccine itself caused some cases of polio.

And with that, I leave you to ponder our current ‘demic.

 

 

 

 

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