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Paralysed with Fear

The Story of Polio

Gareth Williams

When pollsters asked Americans in 1952 what kept them awake at night, the runner-up to nuclear annihilation as a source of national dread was polio. That year the US saw 58,000 cases and 3,000 deaths from a disease that appeared capable of striking any home without warning, suddenly consigning healthy children to the torture of the iron lung and the leg brace.

Yet just a decade later, the disease had all but vanished from the country. By the mid Sixties, there were only a few dozen cases a year. The success was due entirely to vaccination, introduced in 1955 after a vast clinical trial, conducted like a soap opera in the glare of the media spotlight, proved the jab’s effectiveness. Alistair Cooke judged: “Nothing short of the overthrow of the Communist regime in the Soviet Union could bring such rejoicing to the hearts and homes in America.”

As country after country was declared free of the virus, it seemed that polio would follow smallpox, the only disease yet eradicated by man. But polio has clung on, as vaccination efforts struggle to reach children in northern Nigeria and the tribal border areas between Afghanistan and Pakistan, where it remains endemic. Bill Gates, who has spent more than $1 billion on the eradication effort, warns that the disease, which struck 223 people worldwide last year, could yet strike back. Increasingly though, sceptical voices have questioned whether the global $10 billion eradication effort is worthwhile, when progress is so slow and so many other diseases go untreated for lack of funds.

Gareth Williams, professor of medicine at Bristol University and previously the author of a history of smallpox, admits he began this book believing it would be an obituary for the disease. If that is looking premature, it is nonetheless intriguing to learn that polio is a surprisingly modern terror, recorded clearly no earlier than the 18th century.

The name poliomyelitis means inflammation of the grey matter of the spinal cord, which paralyses its victims. The cause of the illness long remained unclear, and Williams tells us in perhaps too much detail about the various dead-end theories put forward to explain it, and various gruesome failed treatments meted out to sufferers. (The iron lung was at least effective). At one point he asks wonderingly why such “peculiar ideas” survived.

Yet for a historian, that surely is the wrong question: better to ask why they seemed plausible, and what that tells about the culture in which they thrived. Many of our own revealing fears will no doubt seem as foolish to posterity as blaming polio on unwashed fruit. Williams cannot quite decide if he is writing a cultural history of polio or a technical history of attempts to produce a vaccine. His default, and duller, setting seems to be the latter.

Despite that, Williams is good on the terror the disease inspired as it insinuated its way into middle-class homes. Much of that fear, ironically given his most famous quotation, was stoked by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Certainly the most famous polio sufferer, Roosevelt was struck down in 1921 (while recuperating in Canada after failing to suppress a Navy gay sex scandal, we learn). His National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis helped stoke terror as a fund-raising tool — at which it was remarkably successful.

Strongest of all is Williams’s highly entertaining description of the poisonous rivalry between scientists with different ideas about the disease, most notably between the rival vaccine-makers Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin (both their methods are still used). His tale of vendetta and bitterness reminds us that even medical heroes who have saved countless lives can be as jealous and petty as the rest of us — and considerably more arrogant.

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