Polio May Make a Comeback, and It Started by Falsely Linking Autism to Vaccination | Paul Steiger

EITHERne of my earliest memories, perhaps the earliest of all, dates back to when I was about four years old, in 1946, living in the Bronx in New York City. I woke up with a blazing headache and burning fever, everything aching. I remember having a tube inserted into my private parts to help remove urine. I woke up again, I don’t know how long later, hours or days, in a hospital room. In bed next to me was a busy man with a terrifying contraption that I now know was an iron lung, to help him breathe.

He could breathe well, and the terrible fever and headaches had subsided. But she couldn’t move her legs.

I soon learned that my illness was called infantile paralysis, poliomyelitis, or simply polio. I had a relatively mild version. In two or three weeks, when the acute stage was over, I was taken across the Hudson River to a rehabilitation hospital in a place called Haverstraw, New York. Over a period of months there, with the help of determined staff, I gradually regained some strength in my legs. He could walk but not yet run. Still, I could go home to our apartment in the Bronx, reconnect with my brother and parents, and start kindergarten, on time, with my age peers.

Paul Steiger receiving treatment for polio as a child.
Paul Steiger receiving treatment for polio as a child. Cinematography: Paul Steiger

Like much of America, we moved to the suburbs, to Connecticut, and then to New Jersey. But summer after summer the fear of the virus haunted us, especially my mother. Her brother as a young man had contracted a version of the disease that left him in a wheelchair for the remaining decades of his life. She lived in continual terror that one or both of her youngest children were afflicted, perhaps more severely than the eldest.

The appearance of effective vaccines, beginning in 1954, miraculously released such fears.

That left me the only member of our family with an ongoing connection to polio. For me, having been spared the most serious consequences of partial or total paralysis, the lifelong sequelae of polio have been quite painful at times, but mostly an annoyance.

Until now. The advent of new viral disease agents, particularly the coronavirus, and my own experience with the manifestations of polio in old age have made me more sensitive to the risks that the polio virus may pose in the future. Unless we humans can commit to greater discipline to eradicate the virus entirely, polio may have a new day in the sun. More generally, other viruses can be more difficult to control, because vaccines, by far the most effective tool against them, work best when all are treated.

Just a few years ago, things looked much more encouraging.

An Indian health volunteer holds a vial containing oral polio vaccine in Bangalore, India, on February 28, 2022.
An Indian health volunteer holds a vial containing pulsed oral polio vaccine in Bangalore, India, in February 2022. Photo: Jagadeesh Nv/EPA

2005 book by David M Oshinsky, Polio, an American historywinner of the Pulitzer Prize for history, dramatically exposes how individual scientists, universities, pharmaceutical companies, private charities, and government at all levels, working separately and together in the 1940s and 1950s, demonstrated the safety and efficacy of two anti-polio vaccines Vaccinations then became part of the routine for countless children in the United States and most other economically developed countries, largely eliminating new polio infections there.

Subsequent efforts targeted less developed countries in Asia, Africa, and elsewhere.

In 1988, the World Health Organization, Rotary International, and what is now the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention launched their Global Polio Eradication program, whose goal was to eliminate polio, just as the United States had done. previous efforts with smallpox. At the time, 350,000 children in 125 countries were infected with the disease, according to Rosemary Rochford, a virologist and professor of immunology and microbiology at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, writing in The conversation. By 2021, the number has dropped to six cases worldwide, she wrote.

Meanwhile, success with polio elimination helped pave the way in the United States for the development and introduction of vaccines against measles in 1963, and later against other diseases such as mumps and rubella. Combination “MMR” vaccines became standard for infants in the United States.

Then problems arose. Some reports, although definitely discredited, gave rise to the belief of a link between vaccination and autism. When the coronavirus appeared, researchers and pharmaceutical companies quickly produced safe and effective vaccines to repel various versions of the mutant Covid virus. But the other side of the vaccine versus virus equation, vaccinating everyone, was no longer so easily achieved.

Whether because of politics, religion, fear of side effects, or the prioritization of individualism, some people no longer embraced the collaborative spirit that made other mass vaccination campaigns so successful.

The commitment to social good necessary to meet public health challenges was evident not only in the coronavirus, but also in seemingly vanquished diseases like polio. An unvaccinated adult in suburban New York was diagnosed with the disease. Polio Virus samples were detected in the city’s wastewater.

These are small signs so far. But these are my neighbors, my nearby neighborhoods. And we know that viruses mutate and can cause long-term damage.

I empathize with people who have been struggling with covid for a long time, because polio is a disease that can come back with age. I was 60 years old when I started noticing my leg muscles atrophying. For a time, the exercise helped. But when I turned 80 this summer, the weakness in my leg has increased. I have trouble with slightly steep sidewalks, for example. My doctor is the same age. No polio. There is no problem with the hills.

As a species, we are slowly beginning to take steps to keep our physical world habitable. We’re also learning how smaller organisms (insects and, yes, viruses) adapt to our changing environment. Inventing vaccines may no longer be enough. We may have to adapt our behavior to help vaccines work.

The scratch and scar I got on my arm as a kid was enough to ensure that those my age didn’t have to worry about smallpox, as long as we all had the same scar. It is time to recognize that personal well-being depends on individual investment in the common good.

Paul Steiger is the founder of ProPublica and former editorial director of the Wall Street Journal. Dean Rotbart’s biography of him is scheduled to be published next year.

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