When I was in 9th grade I was studying the early years of the HIV/AIDS epidemic and was overcome with the terror that many must have felt as an unknown and deadly disease swept through their community, seemingly at random at first. I was born in 1982 – the year after the first AIDS case was discovered – and as a consequence came of age with a sense that the disease was a fixture. That it had not always existed and struck with such abandon blew my mind and my heart wide open.
Now, as a parent, I find myself having a similar experience imagining the days before the polio vaccine.
Terror at sending your kid to school, not knowing who would come home stricken, not being able to protect your kid. Nothing could scare me more. (I write this with awareness of the many families who feel fear at their kids’ safety daily for many other reasons…) And yet that terror was relieved with a single milestone:
So here’s to Jonas Salk – the man who invented the polio vaccine!
At a time when a single case of Ebola or enterovirus can start a national panic, it’s hard to remember the sheer scale of the polio epidemic. In the peak year of 1952, there were nearly 60,000 cases throughout America; 3,000 were fatal, and 21,000 left their victims paralyzed. In Frankie Flood’s first-grade classroom in Syracuse, New York, eight children out of 24 were hospitalized for polio over the course of a few days. Three of them died, and others, including Janice, spent years learning to walk again.
Then, in 1955, American children began lining up for Jonas Salk’s new polio vaccine. By the early 1960s, the recurring epidemics were 97 percent gone.
Salk, who died in 1995, would have turned 100 on October 28. He is still remembered as a saintly figure—not only because he banished a terrifying childhood illness, but because he came from humble beginnings yet gave up the chance to become wealthy. (According to Forbes, Salk could have made as much as $7 billion from the vaccine.) When Edward R. Murrow asked him who owned the patent to the vaccine, Salk famously replied, “Well, the people, I would say. There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?”’
That terror must be such a distant memory (indeed – I have no personal memory of it) that its vaccine could be seen as anything short of critical.
What is also lost in the calculation over the polio vaccine is the fragility of our protection. Consider this: Though it has been over 50 years since the advent of the polio vaccine, public health leaders are still trying to eradicate the disease. Lack of access to vaccines threaten to resurrect the disease in communities around the world. Polio workers often face death to reach communities in need of access. No joke – they are the original superheroes in my book.
When Baby O went for his two month round of vaccines, including the polio vaccine, I thought about the polio workers around the world risking everything to deliver this care. I felt grateful we could get the vaccine easily, felt grateful my son was protected from the disease, and gave a thankful nod to Jona Salk.