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 whod
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, Whats 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
As I thought about it, I flashed on
whats 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 havent 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, youre
likely to have some vivid polio-related images somewhere in the recesses of
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
Grown-ups were warning us kids to be
careful in the summer especially in crowded places or swimming so
we wouldnt get polio. And scary TV public service ads warning what would
happen if you didnt 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 isnt 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
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
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 didnt 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 wasnt contagious after
your fever broke. But some people wouldnt go into my familys
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 couldnt go to the grocery store. If
people saw her, theyd 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, Thats what happened with
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
werent 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
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
Peter Salk was only a boy at the
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 wouldnt miss our plane, Peter Salk recalled.
Thats 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. Its 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
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 dont 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
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,
Why wouldnt 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) cant use my photo any
Reflecting on the stories of Jones and
other polio survivors whom Ive known, its 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 As -- 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 Kramers
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
Id 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, Ill drink a toast to Salk, who developed a vaccine
against a feared disease. Then Ill raise a glass to the polio survivors
whove 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.