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A Toast to Polio Survivors

By Kathi Wolfe

Last fall, I went to Google something as I listened to the news. Health care workers in the United States who’d treated people with Ebola in Africa were being shunned by their neighbors and communities, the newscaster said. People were afraid, the news report said, of “catching” Ebola if they rode the subway or ate pizza at the same place where someone with the serious, often deadly, illness had been.

As I surfed the Internet, I noticed the “Google doodle” – the illustration that you see on the search engine on special occasions. This particular “doodle” showed happy children, along with a couple of smiling adults, holding balloons and riding bikes beneath a sign that read “THANK YOU, DR. SALK!”

I wondered, “What’s with the doodle?” Then it hit me: It was October 28, 2014 – the 100th birthday of Jonas Salk, the researcher and virologist who, after years of work and an unprecedented field trial, developed a vaccine against polio. (Salk died in 1995.)

As I thought about it, I flashed on what’s been running through my mind since I first heard about the current Ebola crisis: The fear surrounding that virus seems eerily similar to the panic felt around polio.

If you were born after the mid-1950s, you probably haven’t thought much about polio unless you either know someone who has it or read about Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the most famous person to have had the disease. But if your birthday falls before then, you’re likely to have some vivid polio-related images somewhere in the recesses of your mind.

I was only 2 years old on April 12, 1955, when it was announced that the vaccine developed by Salk was safe, effective and potent. Yet throughout my childhood, I had nightmares about polio. Like many Americans, I was most afraid of the Iron Curtain, the atom bomb and polio.

Grown-ups were warning us kids to be careful in the summer – especially in crowded places or swimming – so we wouldn’t get polio. And scary TV public service ads warning what would happen if you didn’t get your polio shot still linger in my memory. Every summer before the Salk vaccine was created was “polio season.” You never knew when a polio epidemic might strike your town.

There isn’t any “wild polio” virus in the United States, Dr. Peter L. Salk, a son of Jonas Salk and president of the Jonas Salk Legacy Foundation, told me over the phone recently.

“Polio has been eliminated around the world except for three countries: Nigeria, Pakistan and Afghanistan,” he said. “In 1952, there were nearly 58,000 polio cases in the U.S.”

People had reason to fear that polio would be contagious, William G. Stothers, president of the board of directors of Post-Polio Health International and the former San Diego Union-Tribune public editor, told me in a phone conversation.

“People didn’t understand how long it could be contagious or how it was transmitted,” said Stothers, who contracted polio at age 10. “Not everyone, but a good number of people would avoid being around people with polio. It wasn’t contagious after your fever broke. But some people wouldn’t go into my family’s store.”

Stothers’ wife, Cyndi Jones, contracted polio when she was 2 and a half years old and living in St. Louis.

“I had two older sisters, my dad was a construction worker, and my mother was a stay-at-home mom,” Jones said to me over the phone. “My mom couldn’t go to the grocery store. If people saw her, they’d move to the other side of the street.”

Still, some people would put themselves at risk, Jones said. “The priest from church brought food over, and his wife babysat my sisters,” she said. “When the AIDS crisis (occurred), and there was so much fear, I thought, ‘That’s what happened with polio.’”

The incubation period for polio is from six to 20 days “with a range of 3-35 days,” according to an Immunization Action Coalition fact sheet. People who are infected with polio can “pass the virus on 7-19 days before the onset of disease,” according to the fact sheet, which has been reviewed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “In addition, they can continue to shed the virus in their stool for 3-6 weeks.”

In an email, Daniel J. Wilson, author of the books “Living with Polio: The Epidemic and its Survivors” and “Polio: Biography of a Disease,” wrote that the viral illness was viewed as a “threat to the American Dream” and the “most feared childhood disease of the ... twentieth century.”

The treatment and rehabilitation provided to people with polio as well as the research that led to the polio vaccine weren’t funded by the government, Salk said. This huge effort was privately funded by the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, known as the March of Dimes (its fundraising campaign). People of all ages and from all walks of life contributed their dimes to the cause.

“It was a heroic effort by the people of this country!” Salk said.

From 1938 to 1958, the March of Dimes helped more than 335,000 families pay medical, hospital and rehabilitation expenses for their loved ones with polio, David W. Rose, archivist of the March of Dimes, said in a telephone interview. At a time when there was no Medicaid and few had health insurance, the March of Dimes “saved countless families from bankruptcy,” Rose said.

In 1954, the largest field trial ever run in this country, in which 1.8 million children took part, tested the polio vaccine. “When it was announced on April 12, 1955, that the vaccine was safe, potent and effective, the vaccine was licensed that same day,” Salk said. “That would never happen today. It was a different world back then.”

It would be impossible for those of us not alive or too young to remember then to imagine the electrifying effect that the announcement of the polio vaccine had on this country -- and the world. As word spread of the announcement, church bells rang, children were let out of schools, factories closed, strangers embraced, and tears were shed, according to news accounts of the day and historians of the event.

“It gives you an indication of how intense the fear of polio was,” Rose said. “Courtroom trials that were in session that day were stopped so people could hear this major announcement.”

Peter Salk was only a boy at the time.

“To an 11-year-old hearing the results (of the field trials), it was quite boring,” Salk said. “But it was striking. We had to take our phone off the hook.”

Not long after the announcement, Salk and his family went to the White House, where President Dwight Eisenhower gave his father, Jonas Salk, a presidential citation.

“Police on motorcycles escorted us to the airport so we wouldn’t miss our plane,” Peter Salk recalled. “That’s what was most memorable to myself and my two younger brothers aged 8 and 4.”

The March of Dimes was involved in promoting the polio vaccine, Rose said. “It’s hard to vaccinate a population of millions. We promoted the vaccine through free clinics and the media,” he said. “Elvis Presley was photographed getting a polio shot so teenagers would get vaccinated.”

Though the introduction of the vaccine was cause for jubilation nationwide, people with polio faced challenges ranging from the nearly universal lack of “handicapped accessibility” to the discomfort, ignorance and even scorn of many able-bodied people toward their disability.

Actress Marilyn Monroe with March of Dimes poster children Linda and Sandra Solomon, March of Dimes fashion show, 1958./March of Dimes Foundation

“I had polio in September 1955 when I was 5,” Wilson, a professor of history at Muhlenberg College, wrote in an email to me. “Polio survivors have had to deal with both stigma and ableism (disability-based prejudice). They were visibly handicapped – it is hard to hide braces and crutches or a wheelchair.”

This was a time before the Americans with Disabilities Act, and polio survivors were expected to find ways to adapt to a world of stairs and other physical barriers, Wilson said.

“I don’t think the vaccine changed the experience of polio survivors very much. African Americans had a great deal of difficulty, especially in the segregated South. Blacks had more access to equal treatment in the North, and March of Dimes assistance was provided to blacks and Hispanics.”

As happens all too often, fundraising efforts related to diseases, however effective and well-intentioned, can present negative messages about people with disabilities. Such messaging can be devastating.

Such was the case for Cyndi Jones, who, at age 6, was a regional March of Dimes poster child for the St. Louis area. Jones liked being a poster child until one spring day when she was in first grade. “The teacher held up a March of Dimes flyer urging parents to vaccinate their kids,” she recalled. “On one side was a photo of kids running in a field. Above the photo it said ‘This.’ On the other side was a photo of me in my party dress with my braces and crutches. Above it, it said, ‘Not this.’”

Why wouldn’t someone want to be like me? Jones wondered. “I was dressed up nice! The kids on the other side were scraggly! I was embarrassed. I felt like melting. I told my mom, ‘They (the March of Dimes) can’t use my photo any more.’”

Reflecting on the stories of Jones and other polio survivors whom I’ve known, it’s not surprising to me that so many people in the disability rights movement – from Judith E. Heumann to the late Justin Dart Jr. and Ed Roberts -- have (or had) polio.

“Lots of people with polio are ‘type A’s’ -- people who want to get things (such as overcoming ableism) done,” Jones said.

Nor was I surprised to learn that the late Dr. Linda Laubenstein, a pioneer in AIDS research, had polio. Laubenstein, the real-life model for the character of Dr. Emma Brookner in Larry Kramer’s searing drama “The Normal Heart,” was one of only a few doctors who would treat people with AIDS in the early stages of that epidemic.

Polio and AIDS are quite different. Yet I’d bet that living with the inaccessibility and stigma that many polio survivors encountered made Laubenstein empathetic with people who had AIDS.

As this centennial year of the birth of Jonas Salk closes, I’ll drink a toast to Salk, who developed a vaccine against a feared disease. Then I’ll raise a glass to the polio survivors who’ve fought for the rights of all of us with disabilities.


Kathi Wolfe, a regular contributor to Independence Today, writes frequently about disability issues and the arts.


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