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When vaccines were celebrated and diseases were eliminated

If You Ask Me

Those of us who came of age around the middle of the last century remember with sorrow and horror the annual polio plagues and the fear of getting polio, also known as infantile paralysis, a crippling disease that impacted our growing up summers.

We remember too the fearsomely named iron lung, a huge mechanical respirator that enclosed most of a polio victim’s body to enable the sufferer — often a child — to breathe. And we remembered not being allowed to go swimming and sometimes having to stay indoors, not going out to play in some summer months.

And then, in 1955, my senior year in college, we received the good news about a vaccine discovered by a University of Pittsburgh scientist named Jonas Salk. Salk’s injected vaccine was followed by the Sabin oral vaccine a few years later and their application was enthusiastically welcomed.

Polio was gradually controlled as the vaccines did their jobs.  But it took a while. By 1988, there were still as many as 300,000 cases worldwide, mostly in Asia and Africa.  But by 2017, there were just 22, according to the World Health Organization.  

So why are things so different today? Why are we a nation divided about something as advantageous as a vaccine by politics, region and even faith in science? True, we were more innocent then, possibly more willing to believe what science taught us, to believe that government existed to help and protect its people. Not exactly misconduct.

But today, there are those who would insist we were more ignorant then, more gullible, more accepting of questionable conduct from scientific and governmental institutions.

There is, of course, one principal reason for this change in logical thinking. In those days we were without the mixed blessings of the internet and social media. We were principally informed by news disseminated in the newspapers and on television and to a lesser extent, on the radio. 

True, these media were not always bias free. Readers selected newspapers whose editorial pages contained mainly positions agreeable to them. The popularity of television news depended on the acceptance of the anchorman and people like CBS’s Walter Cronkite, and NBC’s David Brinkley and Chet Huntley were widely admired and believed. For two decades, even during times of strongly disputed political positions, Walter Cronkite was considered the most trusted man in America.

Politicians like Joe McCarthy, George Wallace and lesser known demagogues did have some success in dividing us on particular issues but there was nothing like today’s web sites, with official or patriotic-sounding names, causing a person to believe something merely because he read or heard it on the internet.  

There was no cable news and radio was mostly an entertainment medium. The most popular talk show on the most powerful radio station in the state, WTIC, was Mikeline, which featured disputes over recipe ingredients. When a caller brought up a serious issue for discussion, he was sternly told by the announcer that “we do not discuss controversial topics.”

And when it came to science and medicine, we were united in thanks when a vaccine came along that led to the elimination or the drastic reduction of diphtheria, smallpox, whooping cough, measles and other often fatal diseases.

Finally, I should cite one more fact about Jonas Salk and the character of the best of our people way back then. Salk was 34 years old when he began working in 1948 in a small lab at the University of Pittsburgh to determine the different strains of poliovirus and develop a vaccine for them.

He found it seven years later and was immediately and rightfully hailed as a miracle worker and national hero. On the popular CBS interview program, Person to Person, Salk was interviewed by the great broadcaster Edward R. Murrow, who told him, “Young man, a great tragedy has befallen you, you have lost your anonymity.”

Then Murrow asked, “Who owns this patent?,” Salk replied, “Well, the people, I would say. There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?”

Today, if the money was right, they’d try.


Simsbury resident Dick Ahles is a retired journalist. Email him at rahles1@outlook.com.

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