Economy, History

The Polio Epidemic

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Campobello island, Canada august 9 1921.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt is 39 years old, and in excellent health but it s been an intense few years, last November he d run for vice president and lost by a historic margin, and now he s wrapped up in a scandal from his time as assistant secretary of the navy, he really needs to get away from it all

 so after a social appearance marching with the scouts at the boy scout jamboree, he took his family to their favorite vacation spot, now he s attacking his leisure time with determination, sailing, long hikes, clearing brush, swimming in frigid water, but one night he starts to feel wrong he has nausea, fever, and chills, his skin is so sensitive he can t wear clothing and a spreading numbness engulfs his legs a few days later, he gets the diagnosis Roosevelt has the most feared disease in America poliomyelitis, and he will never walk without assistance again.

Poliomyelitis often shortened to polio has been with humanity for thousands of years, even carvings and paintings from ancient Egypt show otherwise healthy people with weakened limbs, and dropped feet common in the disease. entering via the mouth the poliovirus colonizes the gastrointestinal tract, to reproduce itself most patients develop flu like symptoms, but in one percent of cases the disease spreads to the central nervous system inflaming parts of the brainstem spinal cord, or motor cortex of the brain, when it does this paralytic polio has the potential to destroy the motor neurons, paralyzing the patient, or even cut signals to the throat, and diaphragm leaving them unable to breathe,

 But even so for most of history nobody noticed polio much, there were cases of course which caused terrible suffering, but historically it was just a case here, or there. That is until the early s, when both Europe, and the United States suddenly had a rash of polio epidemics, the illness raged during the summer infecting dozens, or hundreds in each city polio paralyzed people per year leaving previously healthy patients unable to walk without crutches, or bound to wheelchairs. after 1928, patients who lost their ability to breathe could only survive inside of a device known as an iron lung a motorized airtight tank that was the precursor to the modern ventilator, and worst of all polio primarily affected children.

 It was the most feared disease in the United States, polio outbreaks meant closed pools, and movie theaters, canceled school classes, and public health authorities hanging quarantine signs on homes of those unlucky enough to catch it New York healthcare workers would pull children out of classrooms, or playgrounds when they had symptoms and isolate them away from parents.

 case numbers were breathlessly reported to the public via newspapers, and radio on a daily basis, it was terrifying because it was so mysterious, polio came out of nowhere and didn’t behave like any epidemic disease 20th century Americans were at all used to early attempts to blame it on immigrants fell apart when new York doctors noticed there were actually fewer cases in immigrant neighborhoods. Despite their dense population, and lower access to sanitation in fact, it struck hardest in the more modern middle class, and wealthy neighborhoods.

 For decades, doctors and the makers of consumer products had promised that cleanliness was the key to health. Yet, children were coming down with polio despite the fact that they bathed regularly ,washed their hands, laid on sanitized floors, and used products that were sold wrapped in cellophane to keep them clean. except it turns out, that cleanliness was the problem see it s not that few people were getting polio before the 20th century it was that everyone was getting polio before the 20th century. Because poliovirus is spread through the fecal oral route, most people would get it as infants, and while the polio virus is not that dangerous for infants the older you are the worse it is. which is why it struck the 39 year old Franklin Roosevelt, so hard and yet fdr’s infection would be a major turning point in the war against the disease, after getting some benefit from physiotherapy at a hot spring in Georgia, Roosevelt purchased it in 1926, and the next year turned it into the warm springs foundation, a free rehabilitation center for polio victims, and he left the day to day operations to his close friend, and legal partner basil O’Connor, the move turned him from one of the most famous sufferers of the disease to its most prominent philanthropist, and advocate.

Now, there are a lot of myths about FDR, and polio. In fact, he may not have even had polio at all as some historians believed he actually had an autoimmune disease, but by far the biggest myth is that Roosevelt hid from the public the fact that he had polio, and that there was a gentleman s agreement with the press to conceal his condition.

but in fact it, was widely known that Roosevelt had recovered from polio what he actually concealed was the extent of his disability, his public appearances as governor of new York, and later as president of the united states, were carefully stage managed to avoid him being seen in a wheelchair he walked on stage with the aid of leg braces akane, and his bodyguard, and made speeches while holding onto railings or podiums gesturing with his head, so his hands could stay planted and if the press did photograph him while he was in his wheelchair secret service agents would bounce on them, and destroy their film.

 Though, even so, life magazine owned by a magnate who opposed Roosevelt’s, policies did publish a tabloid style photo of the president in his wheelchair publicly Roosevelt used his image as a polio survivor as part of his public relations, using it as proof of his bravery and toughness. Also, he used his position as president to fundraise for a cure, every year local chapters of the warm springs foundation held charity dances on Roosevelt’s birthday that supported treatment programs.

 By the 1930s medical researchers were already in hot pursuit of a polio vaccine, but had failed initial errors such as choosing the wrong species of monkey as a test subject and misunderstanding the method of transmission slowed progress. Meanwhile, annual outbreaks continued to rage in 1935 president Roosevelt cancelled one of his favorite events the boy scout jamboree to prevent spreading the virus to the 25.000 young boys scheduled to attend, he personally made the announcement via radio, and in Roosevelt decided to throw his weight as president behind the vaccine effort, he reorganized the warm springs foundation into the national foundation for infantile paralysis with the goal to raise money for polio treatment, and vaccine research and O’Connor had a new concept to match this new organization.

 Traditionally, at this point in history American philanthropy rested on large donations from the wealthy, but O’Connor wanted to change that. Instead, they would use celebrity talent and get the public personally behind the search for a vaccine everyone would contribute a little the word went out on a coast to coast radio broadcast Broadway and film star Eddie cantor called for Americans to drop spare change in envelopes and send them to Washington, if every child in America gave cents, he said they could further the cause for polio treatment and research and create a march of dimes all the way to the white house the response overwhelmed them. “During the past few days” Roosevelt said during a birthday radio broadcast, “bags of mail have been coming literally by the truckload to the white house. Yesterday, between 40 and 50 000 letters came today even a greater number how many I cannot tell you, for we only estimate the actual count by counting the mailbags”.

in fact, it was so many dimes the foundation had to estimate their value by shoveling loads onto a scale, which they finally tallied at 18 million dollars, the implications on the world of medical philanthropy were enormous, the march of dimes now an annual event would change charitable giving in the united states, trailblazing a new small donation model that over the next three decades gave half a billion dollars to polio research in 1952 when the NFIP funded virologist, Jonas Salk, conducted a promising vaccine trial using killed poliovirus, the organization stepped up to fund and manage a wider trial with 1.8 million children risky, but it worked. And 1955 in the sulk vaccine was declared safe for use, and it would be kept cheap, because when asked by an interviewer who would own the patent for the vaccine? Sulk responded, ‘’who owns the patent?” “Well the people i would say there is no patent could you patent the sun?”

 more could be said about sulk, including his bitter rivalry with Albert Sabin who developed a live oral vaccine, but ultimately both vaccines each useful for different reasons, were funded by the march of dimes which continued after Roosevelt s death in 1945 and to celebrate his contribution to public health FDR  got the perfect tribute.

 On Roosevelt’s 1946 birthday in the US treasury put his face on the dime, and it s been there ever since.

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