On the anniversary of his 100th birthday, The Atlantic interviews the son of polio vaccine researcher Dr. Jonas Salk on the polio epidemic and the forgetting that has occurred since:
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.
On misplaced concerns about vaccines and the necessity of herd immunity:
Rothenberg Gritz: People have been concerned by the idea that vaccines can cause disease in healthy children.
Salk: There are some subtleties to this. With pertussis, for instance, the old vaccine was based on using the whole killed organism. That was very effective, but because there were a whole lot of different kinds of proteins that were all mixed up, there were some side effects. Later on, they developed a so-called acellular pertussis vaccine, where you use purified materials from the bacterium. It doesn’t produce as strong or long-lasting an immune response—people need to have booster shots when they’re adults, for instance. But it doesn’t cause the same side effects.
When my own son Michael was born 31 years ago, the whole-cell vaccine was still in use. Whooping cough was essentially gone in this country by that time, so from one perspective, why should we take the risk of causing a high fever or other side effects in our own child? I know I certainly thought about this a lot. But I just couldn’t bring myself to take advantage of the good that other people had done by immunizing their kids—to take a free ride, so to speak. Michael did end up developing a fever. But I couldn’t have lived with my decision if we hadn’t given him the vaccine.
On the misinformation spread by the anti-vaccine movement:
Rothenberg Gritz: Some vaccine opponents argue that as long as children live healthy lifestyles, they can either avoid illnesses like polio or recover quickly and develop “natural immunity.”
Salk: No. I wouldn’t hesitate to use very strong words about that. Of course it’s a good thing to live a healthy life, to keep the body strong and well-rested. I won’t rule out that it can help to protect against some types of disease. But when it comes to these organisms that can be very damaging to people, I think it’s wishful thinking to imagine that a healthy lifestyle can protect against infection.
And what we see is that many diseases are starting to come back. Measles is recurring; whooping cough is recurring. The kids whose parents are choosing not to immunize them are at risk, but so are babies and kids who might not be able to be vaccinated for one reason or another. These kids are no longer having the same benefit of herd immunity. Their level of protection is now eroding.
Rothenberg Gritz: Why do you think this misinformation has spread so widely?
Salk: Part of it is that people have become complacent because these diseases aren’t rampant anymore. During the polio epidemic, people were really frightened. This was a disease they didn’t understand, whose appearance they couldn’t predict, and it had terrible effects on kids. Swimming pools and movie theaters were closed. It’s easy to forget this now. Also, these days, there are a lot of concerns about living naturally and not wanting to be exposed to things that are made in a laboratory.
But there are probably other forces at work. Back in the 1950s, people really looked to science and medicine as something that would make their lives better. But once the fear of these diseases began to subside, people started looking at other large-scale forces in the world—the Vietnam War, the government, and so on—and wondering, Canwe trust large institutions?Can we trust pharmaceutical companies? I think that that’s something that’s driven people also: a sense of alienation.