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Story of Polio Fight Wins Pulitzer Prize

April 24, 2006 at 12:00 AM EST
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SUSAN DENTZER: “The shot heard ’round the world.” That was commentators’ description of the impact of the famed Salk vaccine for poliomyelitis, or polio. Fifty years ago today, U.S. scientists announced the desperately awaited news about the vaccine developed by the University of Pittsburgh’s Jonas Salk.

SPOKESPERSON: The vaccine could be considered 80 to 90 percent effective against paralytic poliomyelitis.

SUSAN DENTZER: That was the beginning of the end for the global plague of polio. Epidemics of the disease, caused by a virus, had hit with a vengeance in 20th-century America. Thousands, most of them children, were left disabled or paralyzed. The history of the Salk vaccine and America’s epic battle against polio is told in a new book “Polio: An American Story.”

We sat down recently with the author, David Oshinsky, a historian at the University of Texas at Austin.

David Oshinsky, welcome. We see these pictures today of little kids in braces and on crutches, of people in iron lungs because their chest muscles were paralyzed by polio, and we can hardly fathom the impact that polio had on American society in the 20th century.

DAVID M. OSHINSKY, Pulitzer Prize-Winner for History: Well, polio was the most feared disease of the middle part of the 20th century. It was a children’s disease; there was no prevention; there was no cure; every child everywhere was at risk. And what this really meant was that parents were absolutely frantic.

And what they tried to do was to protect their children the best way they could. And the best way they could was to try to keep them out of swimming pools, to keep them out of the movie theaters, to make sure they didn’t make new friends, so that germs weren’t shared among children.

But, in reality, none of that worked, and really what parents began to think about was what the March of Dimes, the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, which had been formed in the 1930s, began to tell them, which was there really is only one solution, and that is a vaccine, and you must get behind the vaccine.

SUSAN DENTZER: The typical polio victim was a child under 15, but perhaps the most famous one was Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

DAVID OSHINSKY: Franklin Roosevelt got polio in 1921 at the age of 39. He was a very atypical victim. Yet in one sense, he wasn’t.

He had spent that summer in Washington under great stress. He had gone to a Boy Scout camp surrounded by children. He had gone to his summer home in Campobello Island, engaged in frenetic activity, actually falling off his yacht into the Bay of Fundy. All of this made it more likely for him to get polio.

More important, he spent his life as an advocate of the fight against polio. He’s the founder of the Warm Springs Foundation, where the little White House was and where people went to be rehabilitated from polio. He was the founder of the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, known to Americans as the March of Dimes. And when he died in 1945, his portrait was put on the dime.

SUSAN DENTZER: You wrote in your book that Americans were primed to see polio in a typical American fashion, and to attack it through “a combination of ingenuity, volunteerism, determination, and money.”

DAVID OSHINSKY: Yes, that is absolutely right. In this era, the federal government was not much involved in medical research; it had to be done privately. And what the March of Dimes did was to involve everybody. Everybody could give something.

And what they did with this money was to put together research teams of really the best virologists and scientists in the country, trying to get a vaccine at Hopkins, at Yale, at Pittsburgh, at Cincinnati. And what they did when they thought they had a vaccine ready was to begin the largest public health experiment in American history.

They lined up two million kids and basically gave them a vaccine that no one was certain was safe, that the government hadn’t tested, that might not work. And what this really seemed to show was the enormous fear that people had of polio.

SUSAN DENTZER: Much of what came about during the battle against polio transformed American public health, and we see the remnants to this day, starting with our very notion of a poster child.

DAVID OSHINSKY: Yes, we do. The first poster child was Donald Anderson, and he came to the March of Dimes in the mid 1940s. What the March of Dimes did, as a way of trying to enhance polio and turn it into America’s national disease, was to use poster children, was to have mothers marching against polio, was to use celebrities who loved to get involved in any charity involving children, Mickey Rooney, Grace Kelly, Elvis Presley.

I have a picture in my book of Richard Nixon pumping gas for polio. It simply was using public relations, razzle-dazzle, Madison Avenue, the latest fundraising techniques to get Americans interested in a disease that was horrific.

SUSAN DENTZER: There were some dark episodes during this whole experience that set the stage for later reforms. What happened?

DAVID OSHINSKY: There were. The early polio trials in the 1930s and in the 1940s, and leading up to the major trials, were often done without any kind of really volunteerism or informed consent. You would go into a mental institution. You would go into what was called a home for the feeble-minded. You would take children who really had no parents and were wards of the state, and you would test on these children.

And they, in a sense, were perfect for testing because they weren’t going anywhere, they couldn’t object, their medical records could be kept very, very carefully. And we’ve moved to an era now — certainly I think in some degree in response to what happened — where there must be informed consent, where the government would never allow the kind of very loose handling of particularly using children, and using children who had problems.

SUSAN DENTZER: We have eradicated polio now, as you say, in most of the world. But just in the past year we’ve had new outbreaks in Nigeria. What lessons, as we work to eliminate polio and other infectious diseases like malaria, what lessons do we take away from the polio experience?

DAVID OSHINSKY: I think there are many lessons from the polio experience, in terms of what is happening in Africa, in parts of Pakistan and India. I think the great lesson is that you vaccinate your children and you do everything you can to educate the public about the need to do so. Polio is a disease that can be wiped off the face of the Earth.

The lesson really is: education. Break down the resistance to vaccination, and you will end polio forever.

SUSAN DENTZER: David Oshinsky, thank you.

DAVID OSHINSKY: My pleasure.