In Conclusion
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Poliomyelitis: The Last Childhood Plague
Living in Fear: America in the Polio Years
Roosevelt: A Presidential Campaign
March of Dimes: America Fights Back
Sister Kenny: Miracle Worker
Dr. Salk: The Man Who Saved the Children
Polio Today: Nearing the end of the battle
You Are on the Conclusion

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 technology—modern methods of sanitation—that 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 together.

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 people everywhere.

Because, ultimately, we are all endangered together.

Living in Fear
Roosevelt | March of Dimes | Sister Kenny | Dr. Salk
Polio Today | In Conclusion
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