Posted by: erinserb | May 7, 2013

Polio – an American Story

Oshinsky, Dave M. Polio: An American Story. New York: Oxford Press. 2006

This is hopefully the start of book reviews, which I will often post on FB as well. 

If ever there was a source that one wanted to know about the scourge of Polio, what it meant for generations who knew it as a nightware and public health dread, one should read this book.

Polio, for those of a younger generation, was perhaps one of the most frightening diseases known to man.   Its formation as a communicable disease can be traced back to ancient times, but up until the early 20th century, it was “off the map” as being a disease of the magnitude as say, tuberculosis, cholera, diptheria, etc.

What seems to be a paradox is that polio actually started to become more prevalent during the years leading up to the mid-20th century.  If one thinks that polio was an illness associated with poor sanitation and squalid living conditions, this book explains that this theory became quite the contrary.  Polio became a disease that struck more in middle-class America where sanitation and hygiene had actually improved.

The book covers the most significant people who were polio victims, primarily President Franklin D. Roosevelt.   Because of President Roosevelt being stricken, and also the virulent and sudden nature of onset and outcome, polio started to become public health enemy #1.   The author details the extensive fund-raising, and the eventual creation of the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (which polio was often referred as).

If those are interested in the drama of medicine and vaccines, you will not be disappointed.  The competition was fierce to find an “effective and safe” vaccine.   Both Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin are presented as bitter rivals, because each approached their vaccine to immunize the public in different ways.   Salk, who is probably better known, used the method of the “killed virus” vaccine, while Sabin believed in a weakened live vaccine.

When viewed from our 21st century lens, much of the work on creating a vaccine will seem primitive, but our human nature and many of our successes and pitfalls are timeless.  That is why this book is a good and easy read because it involves all things which make us “very human”.



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