Monday, January 31, 2005

Winning the War on Polio

A terrific science writer and a good friend, Cooky Oberg, has reviewed a new book Splendid Solution: Jonas Salk and the Conquest of Polio By Jeffrey Kluger. For those of you too young to remember the fear of polio that was prevalent even in the 50's, this book is an exciting and wondrous read. I was a small child then and vividly remember the anxiety and panic that polio could still generate. I recall seeing a picture of an "Iron Lung" with a local kid inside and thinking it must be a horrible torture devised for bad kids. Today Polio's terror has completely evaporated due to medical pioneer, Jonas Salk. Here is Cooky's review:

None of us will ever know the rock-in-the-stomach terror of seeing a black public-health car turning onto our street. But public-health officials had the routine down pat back in 1916: A doctor, a social worker and a driver would roll to a stop in front of the suspect house. The doctor would examine the sick child inside to determine the nature of the illness. If the child showed certain specific symptoms, the doctor would sweep the child up and take it away while the social worker consoled the distraught parents. If the parents kicked and screamed excessively, the driver — or a policeman — would be summoned to take the child to the quarantine hospital by force. Signs would then be posted warning everyone to stay clear of the infected house or the infected street: "INFANTILE PARALYSIS: POLIOMYELITIS."

It's appropriate that Jeffrey Kluger's new book Splendid Solution opens with that feeling — and goes on to grip the reader in the panicked efforts to find a cure. This fast-paced scientific adventure story has all the elements of good drama: a determined hero, an invisible and deadly enemy, an unlikely assortment of supporting actors, a clash of titans, unexpected plot twists and a life-or-death deadline. Kluger, who co-wrote Apollo 13 some years ago, reminds us that real life and real people can often be far more interesting and exciting than fiction.

Although the polio virus had been around since ancient times, it was, ironically, the improved sanitation of the late 19th century that brought on the epidemic polio outbreaks in the 20th century. In earlier times infants and young children had a continuous background exposure to the virus through bad sanitation and therefore experienced polio as a mild flulike infection, gaining lifetime immunity afterward. But when cities and homes became well-plumbed and children well-scrubbed, the slow background exposure to the virus disappeared, and the strong, wild strain of polio hit full force. If someone drank contaminated water or neglected to wash hands after using a bathroom, he or she could be dead or paralyzed in days.

In 1916 there were 27,000 cases of polio in the United States, 6,000 of them fatal. Every summer the disease appeared, struck and left with the cold weather of autumn. In August 1921 Franklin Delano Roosevelt contracted polio and was crippled for life.
By 1952 60,000 U.S. cases were reported, with 3,000 deaths.

The book is a gripping medical drama that details Salk's incredible work. By 1991 polio was eliminated completely in the western hemisphere and in Europe. This was an important chapter in medical history, and Salk's vaccine was a miracle. He never won the Nobel prize for this work, although he richly deserved it. I highly recommend the book to you. Click on the link to read the rest of the review!

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