Peter Takes on History
February 23, 1954
Salk, Sabin and Rotary International
Now, I try to keep This Day in History pretty light and, today the calendar obliged. See, on this date in 1913 film star Mabel Normand was the first person to throw a pie on camera. She hit Fatty Arbuckle who, it turns out, deserved hitting.
But we’re Rotarians so I had to go to a more somber topic.
So, This day in history is today. Today, right now, there is a rapid response team in the country of Malawi in East Africa investigating an outbreak of Type 1 Wild Poliovirus. Rotarians have been showing tiny gap between their index finger and thumb and saying we’re “this close.” Well this news is prying our fingers apart. That’s bad news on the front lines of this fight.
Of the three types of wild polio virus; Type 2 wild poliovirus was declared eradicated in September 2015. Type 3 wild poliovirus was declared eradicated in October 2019. Only type 1 wild poliovirus remains and Malawi hadn’t seen an outbreak of wild polio in 30 years.
Now non-Rotarians might be tempted to think, “Well, it’s “just one case.” The problem is, there’s no such thing as just one case. That’s actually the threshold the World Health Organization uses for declaring an epidemic - one case, because 70% of people infected with polio experience no symptoms, another 25% experience mild symptoms.
Paralytic poliomyelitis, the crippling, iron-lung type devastation we associate with Polio occurs in less than 1% of all infections. So work these numbers backward; at the height of the polio epidemic in the late 40s and early 50s, there were 60,000 symptomatic children in the US. More than 3,000 died. The base of that pyramid is instructive, illustrating the edge the polio virus has. The same edge as COVID. Numbers. Asymptomatic people who are infected and spreading the virus. Poliovirus enters cells and replicates in six to eight hours, yielding 10,000 to 100,000 virus particles per cell. So very quickly thousands, even hundreds of thousands of people are shedding virus, infecting others before the first case of polio paralysis emerges.
To make it worse, it mainly infected children because children are dirty, disgusting little perambulating petri dishes filled with bacteria and viruses.
So, yesterday I’m on the phone with a client; a woman who volunteers at a local elementary school. She said she wants to see the kids back in school without masks. I’m thinking, “Wait, masks work!" Researchers found N95 masks were associated with a 83% decrease in testing positive for COVID-19! "Why would we want to eliminate this simple and effective barrier to transmission?” She’s like, “You’re thinking of adults. Kids are coughing and sneezing in them, dripping snot in them, touching them with dirty hands, touching each other, sucking on the fabric. She heard a little girl say, “My mask tastes like pizza.” And her friend says, “Let me smell it.” Owwww.
And remember, in the early days of polio epidemics, nobody knew it spread through contact or what they call the oral-fecal connection. You know, bad hygiene, improper hand washing, skin to skin contact with fluid! But, if you didn’t know that, it looked like a big cosmic lottery where the hand of fate would simply tap random children. Parents were petrified of the disease.
Now, it didn't strike children exclusively. We have a very famous “for instance,” right? Franklin D. Roosevelt contracted polio on summer vacation in 1921. He was 39. Luckily, he was a man who got things done. Roosevelt organized community leader, solicited donations; he helped to create the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, later renamed the March of Dimes Foundation. The March of Dimes was literally, young mothers walking around their own neighborhoods collecting dimes for polio research. Funding for research wasn’t exclusively from “big government” or “big business.” It was parents frightened for their children, doing what they could to help. A mass mobilization, like WWII. Everyone knew the names of the big players. The faith of our nation was behind Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin.
After successfully inoculating thousands of monkeys, in 1952 Dr. Jonas Salk began the risky step of testing the vaccine on humans. Despite the pressures of an anxious country, Jonas Salk took careful and measured steps toward the finished vaccine.
When the first trials of the Salk vaccine were announced, 600K parents volunteered their children. But before he began the double-blind study required by the CDC, he took an additional precautionary step. After boiling the needles and syringes on his kitchen stovetop, Salk injected himself, his wife and his three sons.
Salk declared the success of the initial human tests to a national radio audience on March 26, 1953. When the CDC announced that Dr. Salk’s vaccine was found safe and effective, church bells rang.
Finally, On This Day, February 23, 1954, a group of children from Arsenal Elementary School in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, were the first to receive the first injections of the new polio vaccine developed by Dr. Jonas Salk.
Five years later Albert Sabin's vaccine was also declared safe and effective and soon became the preferred method of immunization. Instead of using a "killed' virus like the Salk vaccine, the Sabin vaccine used the more effective live but "attenuated" virus. Another advantage, the Sabin vaccine is administered orally simplifying mass vaccination efforts.
Thanks to Rotary International's "End Polio Now" effort, the wild polio infection rate has decreased by ninety-nine percent but, sadly, we are suffering setbacks. Conflicts, suspicion and misinformation have prevented vaccination efforts from reaching children in parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan. And recent reporting of isolated cases in Africa should be a wakeup call to the rest of the world. The scourge of polio still exists and can gain a foothold again if we do not respond with resources, vigilance and determination.
That’s all I’ve got.
I’ll get back to throwing pies next week.