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The end of polio?

Monday, November 8, 2010

One of the featured displays at the High Plains Museum, in downtown McCook is a tank respirator, or iron lung, the device most associated with polio.

Physicians had found that in the first, acute stages of polio, a patient very often was unable to breathe because the polio virus paralyzed the chest muscle groups that allowed that patient to breathe. This was the reason that so many patients died from polio. Those patients that were able to live through this early stage of the disease usually regained most if not all of their former strength.

In 1927 two professors at Harvard University made the first working model of the iron chamber that we call "The Iron Lung." That machine is credited with saving the lives of thousands of victims of polio in the 1930s, '40s, and into the 1950s.

The early machine was powered by electric motors hooked up to two vacuum cleaners, which changed the air inside the metal capsule, pulling air into and out of a patient's lungs. The machine could maintain respiration artificially until the person in the iron lung could breathe on his own, usually in one or two weeks.

It was not long before the iron lung was the accepted device for helping patients in the early stage of polio. In 1939 the Infantile Paralysis Foundation began a mass distribution of iron lungs to hospitals around the US. The machines were expensive -- $1,500 -- about the same as a small house. In McCook the Girl Scouts conducted a drive to buy an iron lung, which they donated to St. Catherine's Hospital.

In 1959 there were 1,200 people in the United States who were being kept alive with an iron lung. In 2004 there were 59. The eradication of Polio, not just in the US, but worldwide is an amazing "good story," in this time of "horror stories."

If the iron lung was the best known symbol of the polio disease, President Franklin Roosevelt was the best known victim of the disease. Roosevelt was an adult when he contracted polio. In 1926 he founded the Georgia Warm Springs Foundation, the place he visited for the therapeutic effects of the springs. This Foundation later became The Infantile Paralysis Foundation, later the Polio Foundation, all dedicated to the eradication of the polio disease. In 1938 the popular comedian, Eddie Cantor, made an appeal to his nationwide radio audience for funds, and playing on the newsreel feature of the day, The March of Time, called his appeal, The March of Dimes. The name caught on, later becoming the official name of the Polio Foundation. Millions of school children across the nation sent in their dimes to wipe out the disease. Personally, I remember that each year we would bring our dimes to school on the occasion of President Roosevelt's birthday. Our teacher predicted that within our lifetimes we would see the end of polio in the U.S. How right she was!

Sister Kenny was able to make polio patients more comfortable and lessened the lasting effects of the disease on those patients. The vaccinations to protect children from polio and eventually to eradicate the disease from the face of the earth were brought to the public by two American doctors, both born to Russian Jewish parents, Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin.

Dr. Jonas Salk, 1914-1995, was something of a child prodigy, who originally aspired to become a lawyer. At his mother's urging he pursued a medical career, and gravitated to the field of virology. He was lured to the University of Pittsburg School of Medicine, where, in 1955, with a grant from the Infantile Paralysis Foundation he developed a vaccine for the prevention of the polio disease.

The early '50s had seen an increase in the annual cases of polio in the U.S. One writer wrote, "Apart from the atom bomb, America's greatest fear is polio." Even the rumor of a vaccine which would prevent polio was greeted with relief and enthusiasm, not unlike the news that World War II had ended.

In 1955, just 10 years after FDR's death, Dr. Salk assembled an army of 20,000 doctors, 64,000 school personnel, and 220,000 volunteers, to speedily test the vaccine for FDA approval, by inoculating 1,800,000 school children, in 14 states of the US. The vaccine was deemed successful. It led to 100 percent protection from paralysis of those vaccinated. Production of the vaccine was begun immediately.

Later, in a TV interview Dr. Salk was asked about the patents on his discovery, which would save people from the ravages of polio. Salk's reply, "Patent? There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?" His gift was to mankind.

Dr. Salk's vaccine used a killed-virus, administered via a shot, which caused a patient's immunity to build up against polio, and was good for a number of years. Yet there were many in the medical community who felt that this was not good enough. Dr. Albert Sabin, 1906-1993, at the U. of Cincinnati, had developed another vaccine, which used a live-virus, and was administered in sugar cubes laced with the live virus. Almost immediately a huge controversy sprang up among doctors and the health community about which vaccine was more effective, and which was safest to use. The controversy waged for years, and became a verbal war between Dr. Salk and Dr. Sabin.

McCook's Dr. John Batty remembers that in 1962, a team of most of the doctors in McCook conducted a mass inoculation, via the live-virus laced sugar cubes. I remember that we all took our children to the auditorium, where they received their sugar cubes. The crowd was tremendous. The line of children stretched for a block, but the whole operation went very smoothly (and painlessly) -- and as it has turned out, effectively.

Apparently both vaccines have been effective. It has been said that "The Salk vaccine protects the individual. The Sabin vaccine can wipe out the disease." The number of polio cases in the U.S. declined from 37,000 in 1954 to 900 in 1962. Polio in the U.S. has continued to decline, until today it is considered to be eradicated. The last polio case in the US occurred in 1979.

Worldwide, polio has also been on the decline. Thanks to the efforts of governments and humanitarian organizations, today polio is considered to be eradicated in all but a few spots in Africa and Asia. Rotary International has had an ongoing crusade to eradicate the disease worldwide. Two million Rotarians have raised more than $240 million to buy polio vaccine for distribution in poor countries. The original goal was to wipe out polio worldwide by 2005, the 100th anniversary of Rotary's founding. Hampered by civil wars, civil strife, and suspecting local governments, that goal has been delayed, though still thought to be attainable. It is discouraging, however. A recent report showed that in 25 countries, that were said to be free of polio, polio has reappeared. Easy international air-travel makes the spread of the polio virus a real problem.

Apparently, the fight to eradicate the disease worldwide is to be with us for years to come, but we have high hopes for success -- something that was lacking in the years before Dr. Salk and Dr. Sabin.

Source: Dr. Salk in Academy of Achievement; Dr. Sabin, Discoverer of Oral Polio Vaccine, U. of Cincinnati; The Iron Lung, U. of Virginia; March of Dimes Foundation; Rotary International.

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Walt Sehnert
Days Gone By