Monday, October 5, 2015

The plague of polio -- Part 1

The iron lung -- the torture of polio
In the years surrounding the Great Depression, on into those after World War II, Americans sometimes feared more than just fear itself, if the words of Franklin D. Roosevelt can be skewed.

In a word: Polio.

Roosevelt himself had been a victim of the disease, also known scientifically as Infantile Paralysis. Though Roosevelt, after becoming president, endeavored to downplay his own misery resulting from the disease, millions of Americans either feared catching it ... or endured the consequences for having done so.

And until the early 1950s, it was still mostly guesswork about what caused polio.

In 1949, the Indiana city of Jasper contracted with General Electric to install garbage disposals in residences as a way of containing the garbage that brought various vermin into the community, chief among them the common housefly.

According to the Indiana Magazine of History, a 1986 article by Suellen Hoy explores the Jasper experiment and what it meant in the days prior to the development of the Salk vaccine.

Jasper, she wrote, had long known about the relationship between filth and disease but, not unlike most of America, had never drawn a formative connection to polio.

It also just seemed that the city was doomed to having sewage and garbage issues indefinitely. Hog farms, stormwater runoff into streams and an uneven process for controlling any of it ... until the General Electric contract with the city to install the disposal units.

Mayor Herbert Thyen was instrumental in moving the plan along, after a 1947 cholera outbreak was blamed on hog lots outside the city. Along the process, the Indiana General Assembly greased the tracks to allow the disposal system to become implemented.

In 1949, the nation suffered a serious outbreak of polio, nearly 17,000 new cases.

Writes Hoy:

"With the cause still unknown, most health officials and sanitary engineers continued to see polio as a filth disease."

The conclusion: The common fly was a transmitter of the virus and any attempts to control that insect would go toward a successful cure.

The garbage can was replaced by a disposal system that churned up the waste and led it toward a processing station.

How well did it work? Jasper boasted for years that it was the first city in America to make garbage illegal. Thwarting polio would be considerably more complex than that.


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