Let Inga Tell You: Polio is back. That means getting vaccinated
I was more than a little dismayed to read recently that the polio virus, which had been practically eradicated in the United States, has been detected in wastewater in the New York City area since May.
This is a topic close to my heart, as my siblings and I all contracted polio in August 1955, four months after Jonas Salk’s triumphant announcement of a successful vaccine. I have repercussions of polio to this day.
Not surprisingly, I can’t even be civil to anti-vaxxers. Not even minimally polite. I think they are ignorant idiots.
Poliomyelitis, a warm-weather virus especially targeting children, was the second-greatest fear in post-World War II America after nuclear war. In the 1952 outbreak, 57,628 cases were reported, 3,145 died and 21,269 experienced paralysis.
The vast majority of Americans couldn’t line up fast enough to get the vaccine for their kids in the mid-1950s. But even then, the vaccine had a vocal opponent in the form of a cosmetics magnate, Duon Miller, who made his fortune on a first-ever cream shampoo called Vita-Fluff. Mr. Miller was convinced the vaccine was dangerous, and more to the point, that polio could be prevented by avoiding soft drink consumption. He wasn’t too keen on bleached flour either.
As far as Duon Miller was concerned, polio was not an infectious disease (it’s a highly contagious virus) but a state of malnutrition. Ironically, he wasn’t totally wrong about the perils of a high-sugar, refined-food diet. It just wasn’t applicable to polio.
There was no internet then, so he had to use the U.S. Postal Service to get the word out, ultimately getting shut down by the federal government. But he still railed against sugar, “processed bread” and even pasteurized milk for years to come.
While polio particularly targeted children, adults could contract the virus as well. When teenagers and young adults remained woefully under-vaccinated, Elvis Presley agreed to be vaccinated on “The Ed Sullivan Show” in 1956, after which vaccination rates in those age groups skyrocketed. Never underestimate a celebrity endorsement.
In truly unlucky timing, given that a vaccine to prevent polio was likely going to be available within months in our small New York state town, my siblings and I contracted polio during a trip to rural Ohio to see my dying grandfather. Most likely cause: we kids spending the week cooling off behind the house in a contaminated creek with a polio outbreak upstream. Sewage in that era fed into the creek, and polio (unknown at the time) is caused by fecal contamination.
When we returned from that trip, all three of us became seriously ill. The dreaded polio diagnosis was clinched by a painful spinal tap. There had been no cases of polio in our area, and wishing to keep it that way, the local Board of Health quickly quarantined us. Let me say, it’s no fun being a pariah.
For a long time afterward, no neighbors wanted their kids to play at our house. It wasn’t clear at that time how polio was transmitted (even bananas and mosquitoes were suspect), and no one was taking any chances.
When you’re quarantined in a small town, you end up eating a lot of canned food. Even if there had been Instacart, they wouldn’t have delivered to us. I remember literally gagging on Chun King canned chow mein and chop suey, determined that I would never eat that again. When a meal is so awful that you remember it for the rest of your life, you know it was pretty terrible.
Years later, when I was dating my future first husband in New York City, it took him a full year to persuade me to go to Chinatown and try non-canned Chinese food, which I instantly loved.
In those hot, humid August days in 1955, I remember being as sick as I’ve ever been. Probably we kids recovered better than our poor terrified parents. The little boy in the polio ward bed next to my sister’s was suddenly in an iron lung, a behemoth ventilator of the era used when polio caused respiratory paralysis.
I wish every parent who doesn’t vaccinate a child could time-travel to the 1950s to see how children suffered from now-preventable diseases. I don’t remember mumps, measles and rubella being any picnic either.
The fact that the polio virus is detectable in NYC wastewater is a clear indication that polio is circulating in the city. The New York Times reported that a man in Rockland County, N.Y., north of the city, was recently diagnosed with polio and left with paralysis. Unlike COVID-19, polio is virtually totally preventable with vaccination.
I recently read an interview of a woman who said that in lieu of vaccinations, she was feeding her children a totally organic regimen so their immune systems would be able to resist infection. Sounds an awful lot like shampoo guy Duon Miller.
Sorry, lady. A healthy diet and wishful thinking just aren’t going to do it.
Inga’s looks at life appear regularly in the La Jolla Light. Reach her at email@example.com. ◆
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