Polio is a paradox. It is a disease
that was, for all intents and purposes, stopped in the 20th century. It is also, to
some extent, a product of the 20th century. The virus was always here, but it was
modern technologymodern methods of sanitationthat turned the endemic into the
epidemic. It is a vivid reminder that we are not blessed with 20/20 foresight.
Who could have predicted, at the end of the 19th century, that the actions we took
to protect our population from certain dread diseases would release an even more dread
disease upon us.
Although we sometimes wish for just this sort of prescient knowledge,
perhaps we are better off without it. Had we seen the results of our actions, would
we have traded typhoid and cholera for polio? Remember that in its worst year, polio
infected less than 30,000 people nationwide. To contrast, 90,000 people died in
Chicago alone in the 1885 typhoid/cholera epidemic.
That our actions have unforeseen and unforeseeable consequences is
something to remember as we try to plot our path into the future. What might we have
done in the 70s to assuage tension and alleviate famine in Africa had we known that the
resulting influx of people into the cities would have a direct result on the spread of a
formerly rare virus that we now call HIV?
It is now suspected that some of the vaccine that was used in the original
polio trials and immunizations were grown from the kidneys of monkeys infected with
something called Simian Virus 40. SV40 is suspected of causing some rare forms of
cancer. Would we have been so quick to immunize had we known that our children might
pay a price in the future for safety in their youth?
We have eliminated almost all of the formerly terrifying diseases of
childhood. Diphtheria, pertussis, rubella, mumps; all are gone through the miracle
of immunisation. They stay gone as long as we continue to vaccinate. When we
relax, when we let down our guard, when we grow careless, they return. In this past
decade we have seen pertussis outbreaks in Japan and Australia following a relaxation on
mandatory vaccination policies, and children died. Yet there are some in this
country who argue that parents ought to have the right to choose not to vaccinate their
children. They argue about parental rights, as if choosing not to immunise were
equivalent to choosing not to give your children healthy food. They forget that
while a child raised on french fries alone is himself malnourished, that immunity is a
group effort; if enough members of the group are not vaccinated, we are all endangered
Jonas Salk understood the importance of everyone. He
refused to patent his vaccine. He fought against the double-blind study, because he
could not bear to deny any child whatever protection the vaccine would provide. He
wanted to share his triumph with every nation upon the earth, so that no more children
would die of this dreadful disease. He almost lived long enough to get his wish;
certainly, when he died, he knew that we were near the end.
In the same vein, he championed the cause of peace. It was a natural
extension of his belief in the importance and preciousness of each person. He is
called a genius for his work on the polio vaccine, but perhaps this side of him deserves,
even more, to be called the work of a genius.
As we progress, we become more interconnected. There are no more
nations in this world, only sub-groups of a single planet. We have no difficulty in
understanding that the stock market in Japan will affect the stock market in New York, but
we sometimes ignore the fact that disease in Africa has consequences in Alabama, that
racism in Serbia reaches out into South Dakota, that unrest in India unsettles Indiana.
We must learn to think globally. When we toss the stone, we must try to see
how the ripples will affect the far bank. We must work for the betterment of all
Because, ultimately, we are all endangered together.