Polio may be making a comeback – and it started with mismatching autism to vaccination | Paul Steiger

OOne of my earliest memories, perhaps the earliest of all, dates back to when I was about four years old, in 1946, in the Bronx borough of New York City. I woke up with a burning headache and a fiery fever, pain all over. I remember having a tube inserted into my genitals to suck up urine. I woke up again, I don’t know how much later, hours or days, in a hospital ward. In the bed next to me sat a man who was working on a terrifying thing that I now know was an iron lung to help him breathe.

I could breathe well and the terrible fever and headache were gone. But I couldn’t move my legs.

I soon learned that my illness was called polio, poliomyelitis, or simply polio. I had a relatively mild version. Within two or three weeks, when the acute phase ended, I was taken across the Hudson River to a rehabilitation hospital in a place called Haverstraw, New York. Over a period of months there, aided by a determined staff, I gradually regained some strength in my legs. I could walk, but not yet run. Still, I was able to go home, to our apartment in the Bronx, reconnect with my brother and parents, and get to kindergarten on time with my peers.

Professor Monica Trujillo holds a wastewater sample in a lab at Queens College on August 25, 2022.  The disease was discovered in New York City's sewers.
Professor Monica Trujillo holds up a wastewater sample in a lab at Queens College on August 25, 2022. The disease was discovered in New York City’s sewers. Photo: Angela Weiss/AFP/Getty Images

Like much of America, we moved to the suburbs, to Connecticut, and then to New Jersey. But summer after summer, fear of the virus followed us, especially my mother. Her brother had contracted a version of the disease as a young man that left him in a wheelchair for the remaining decades of his life. She lived in constant fear that one or both of her younger sons would be affected, perhaps more severely than her eldest.

The emergence of effective vaccines, which began in 1954, miraculously stirred up such fears.

As a result, I remained the only member of our family with a lasting connection to polio. Since I’ve been spared the more serious consequences of partial or total paralysis, the lifelong after-effects of polio are occasionally quite painful, but mostly annoying.

Up to now. The advent of new viral pathogens, especially the coronavirus, and my own experience with the manifestations of polio in later life have made me more sensitive to the risks that the polio virus may pose in the future. Unless we humans can commit to more discipline in eradicating the virus completely, polio could potentially have another day in the sun. More generally, other viruses can be harder to fight because vaccines, by far the most effective against them, work best when everyone is treated.

Just a few years ago, things looked a lot more encouraging.

An Indian health volunteer holds a vial containing the pulse polio oral vaccine in Bangalore, India, February 28, 2022.
An Indian health volunteer holds a vial containing the oral vaccine against pulse polio in Bangalore, India, in February 2022. Photo: Jagadeesh Nv/EPA

David M. Oshinsky’s 2005 book, Polio, An American Story, winner of the Pulitzer Prize in history, dramatically explains how individual scientists, universities, pharmaceutical companies, private charities, and government at all levels have worked separately and together over the years. ’40s and ’50s – proved the safety and effectiveness of two competing anti-polio vaccines. The vaccines then became part of the routine for countless children in the United States and most other economically developed countries, largely eliminating new polio infections there.

Subsequent efforts focused on less developed countries in Asia, Africa, and elsewhere.

In 1988, the World Health Organization, Rotary International, and what are now the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention launched their Global Polio Eradication Program, aimed at eliminating polio, as previous efforts had done with smallpox. At the time, 350,000 children in 125 countries were infected with the disease, according to Rosemary Rochford, a virologist and professor of immunology and microbiology at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, in The Conversation. By 2021, the number had dropped to six cases around the world, she wrote.

Meanwhile, the success of polio elimination had paved the way in the United States for the development and introduction of measles vaccines in 1963, and then for other diseases such as mumps and rubella. The combined “MMR” vaccines became standard for infants in the United States.

Then problems arose. Some reports, while definitively discredited, gave rise to the belief in a link between vaccination and autism. When the coronavirus hit, researchers and pharmaceutical companies quickly produced safe and effective vaccines to ward off different versions of the mutating Covid virus. But the other side of the vaccine-versus-virus equation — getting everyone vaccinated — was no longer so easily reached.

Whether for politics, religion, fear of side effects or a priority of individualism, some people no longer embraced the collaborative spirit that made other mass vaccination campaigns so successful.

The commitment to social well-being needed to meet public health challenges became apparent not only in the coronavirus, but also in seemingly vanquished diseases such as polio. An unvaccinated adult in one of the New York suburbs was diagnosed with the disease. Poliovirus samples were found in the city’s wastewater.

These are minor signs so far. But these are my neighbors, my neighborhoods. And we know that viruses mutate and can cause long-term damage.

I sympathize with people who have been struggling with Covid for a long time, because polio is a disease that can reappear over the years. I was in my sixties when I first noticed my leg muscles atrophy. For a while, exercise helped. But when I turned 80 this summer, my leg weakness has increased. For example, I have trouble with slightly hilly sidewalks. My doctor is the same age. No polio. No trouble with hills.

As a species, we are slowly starting to take measures to keep our physical world livable. We also learn how the smallest organisms – insects and yes viruses – adapt to our changing environment. Inventing vaccines may no longer be enough. We may have to change our behavior for the vaccines to work.

The scratch and scar I got on my arm as a child was enough to assure my peer didn’t have to worry about smallpox as long as we all got the same scar. It is time to recognize that personal well-being depends on individual investment in the greater good.

Paul Steiger is the founder of ProPublica and former editor of the Wall Street Journal. Dean Rotbart’s biography of him is slated to be published next year

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