On Jan. 3 it will be 81 years since President Franklin Roosevelt started the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, better known as the March of Dimes, a nonprofit fundraiser that eventually led to a safe and effective vaccine against the disease poliomyelitis.
It may be ancient history now, but people used to panic in the days when every summer would bring another outbreak of polio, which could cause permanent paralysis, even death, especially to children. There was also a non-paralytic form of polio, which caused no permanent damage, but nobody knew anything about either type, or which one they might catch. Not knowing how polio spread, people would shun swimming pools and movie theaters. There was a big outbreak in 1949 (42,000 affected, 2,720 deaths) and an even bigger one in 1952 that hit more than 57,000 people, leaving 3,145 of them dead and another 21,000 suffering some level of paralysis for life.
So American parents breathed a huge sigh of relief when, in 1955, the Salk vaccine came out, and later the Sabin oral vaccine. Almost overnight, polio was vanquished in this country. (In Connecticut, Dr. Dorothy Horstmann — who was the first woman to become a professor at Yale School of Medicine — did important work that made the polio vaccines possible.) I even have a vague memory of my father taking me into some kind of van or trailer at the Berlin Fair where there was a polio patient, in an iron lung, with a rear-view mirror so he could talk to you. The not-so-subtle idea that you should donate some money — folding money, please — was conveyed. I was terrified, but I figure Dad thought I should know about this stuff. That exhibit may well have been legit, but I later learned that there were grifters who put on similar displays to rake in money at county fairs, with young actors playing patients and older actors dressed up as nurses or doctors.
Anyway, the main point of all this should be that vaccines work; that millions of people were saved from getting polio by the organized efforts of medical researchers; that science works.
Today, though, we have the “anti-vaxxers,” people who reject science and instead choose to believe fringe groups on the internet that spread disproved claims about the supposed horrors caused by vaccination. Through their efforts, the “anti-vaxxers” have given vaccine-preventable diseases like measles, chickenpox and whooping cough a new lease on life in this country.
The de facto leader of this great leap backward is the actress and all-purpose celebrity Jenny McCarthy — whose scientific credentials apparently include one year (1994) as Playboy’s Playmate of the Year, a TV appearance on “WrestleMania XI” and her role in the movie “The Stupids”. She has long promoted the debunked theory that vaccines — specifically the MMR vaccine, which protects against measles, mumps and rubella — can cause autism, an idea put forward by the now-discredited British researcher Andrew Wakefield.
Judith Shaw Beatty — who suffered for years after the 1949 polio outbreak — writing in HuffPost, referred to the anti-vaxxers as “people who oppose vaccines, who themselves were very likely vaccinated as children but do not extend the same privilege to their own offspring.” Well put.
Reach Glenn Richter at firstname.lastname@example.org.