Thank heaven for the polio vaccine

The heat of the season has come upon us and threatens to continue. I passed a church recently that made the shortest, smartest statement possible about the whole business on its outdoor message board: “Hell Is Hotter!”
But this kind of weather always takes me back to the ’50s, the worst time ever for polio, which peaked in 1952 with some 20,000 U.S. cases of paralysis. I remember that year especially because it’s when the boy next door became one of them — three years too early for Dr. Jonas Salk’s breakthrough vaccine.
I also remember 1955 because that’s when my father did something quite unusual. Doctors everywhere were receiving the new vaccine and being encouraged to give children the shots as quickly as possible. Salk’s preparation had to be refrigerated, but even so, it had an expiration date. So my dad — a physician whose practice was adults, not children — took a bold step. His office was on the second floor of a corner building, over a pharmacy, and there was a newspaper kiosk at the corner.
As the vaccine’s expiration date approached, Dad took a folding chair and small table down to the corner and, receiving permission from the pharmacy and the news vendor, parked himself there and buttonholed all people walking by with small children in tow. If they said, when he asked, that their kids had not yet been vaccinated, he said “Now’s the time,” and proceeded to give Salk’s miracle away. The AMA was not amused, because there was supposed to be a charge levied for those shots. But my father made his case: Better that children be vaccinated for nothing than have the polio paralysis antidote lose its effectiveness while he waited inside for young patients who never came.
Of course, things became much easier in 1961, when Dr. Albert Sabin’s liquid vaccine — easily drinkable from a tiny paper cup — was available. But by that time, the worst was long over…at least for most. However, a recent Dallas Morning News article told the story of a longtime survivor who’s been, since age 6, confined to an “iron lung” — the metallic tube that 60-plus years ago did the breathing for victims with paralyzed chest muscles. And, for this man, still does. Nobody makes iron lungs anymore; his is at the potentially dangerous “held together with spit and baling wire” stage. But he is remarkable for his drive, stamina and achievement: He received all his schooling and continues now as a practicing attorney, with his body encased in the machine that still draws breath for him. He is not just one in a million; he is the only one.
So I recommend to you Philip Roth’s book Nemesis, which of course is polio. He fictionalized a young Jewish man from New York as the central character around whom polio rages — with the fear of the disease raging even more violently than the disease itself. And of course, those with the most fear, those who are most cautious and take the most precautions, can become — to their immense surprise — its victims. For me, a lover of everything Roth, this book is my favorite because it’s an affectingly true picture of that time.
The boy next door survived without the iron lung, never showing any of polio’s aftereffects. Not then. But when I see him now, he’s a man saddled with the characteristic limp that returns in old age to those who have had polio, years after they thought they were completely healed. Because of him and my father, I work hard on behalf of Rotary International’s efforts to wipe out polio across the globe. And we’ve gotten tantalizingly close but have been stymied by two small African countries where parents refuse immunizations. This has been enough to keep the disease alive and active.
Read the Roth book while it’s hot outside and give thanks that we here in the U.S. today are the luckier beneficiaries of Salk and Sabin.

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