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The Death of a Disease

The Death of a Disease: A History of the Eradication of Poliomyelitis

Bernard Seytre
Mary Shaffer
Copyright Date: 2005
Published by: Rutgers University Press
Pages: 176
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  • Book Info
    The Death of a Disease
    Book Description:

    In 1988, the World Health Organization launched a campaign for the global eradication of polio. Today, this goal is closer than ever. Fewer than 1,300 people were paralyzed from the disease in 2004, down from approximately 350,000 in 1988.

    In The Death of a Disease, science writers Bernard Seytre and Mary Shaffer tell the dramatic story of this crippling virus that has evoked terror among parents and struck down healthy children for centuries. Beginning in ancient Egypt, the narrative explores the earliest stages of research, describes the wayward paths taken by a long line of scientists-each of whom made a vital contribution to understanding this enigmatic virus-and traces the development of the Salk and Sabin vaccines. The book also tracks the contemporary polio story, detailing the remaining obstacles as well as the medical, governmental, and international health efforts that are currently being focused on developing countries such as India, Pakistan, Nigeria, and Niger.

    At a time when emerging diseases and the threat of bioterrorism are the focus of much media and public attention, this book tells the story of a crippling disease that is on the verge of disappearing. In the face of tremendous odds, the near-eradication of polio offers an inspiring story that is both encouraging and instructive to those at the center of the continued fight against communicable diseases.

    eISBN: 978-0-8135-3786-3
    Subjects: Health Sciences

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-x)
  4. 1 The Last Victims
    (pp. 1-16)

    Boureima Bagré is five years old. He lives with his family in the village of Seguedin, in the Nanoro district of this West African country. Burkina Faso means “land of honest people.”

    Boureima helps shepherd the family’s donkeys and goats, but, unlike the other children, he does not tug or pull on the animals to coax them into their pen at the end of the day. He cannot play for long without sitting down. Mostly he leans against the adobe wall, watching his sisters, mother, and aunts as they gather around an enormous flat rock, each woman gripping a stone...

  5. 2 A Lifetime Burden
    (pp. 17-23)

    More than two years have gone by since the summer 1998 polio epidemic in Burkina Faso. Aïnata has grown. Her grandmother, tired and unwell, was not able to take her to the rehabilitation center to have her caliper adjusted. The shoe on the caliper is now too small for a foot that has grown. The knee piece is inches below the little girl’s knee, and she can no longer bend her leg.

    Ruth Zongo’s efforts were not in vain, however. They have changed Aïnata’s prospects for the future. The little girl limps, but she walks upright. She has learned how...

  6. 3 A Virus with a Long History
    (pp. 24-29)

    Roma the Guardian was a priest of the Egyptian goddess Astarte. He is one of the central figures on a stele on display at the Glyptothek Museum in Copenhagen, a stone slab dating back to the eighteenth pharaonic dynasty (sixteenth to thirteenth centuries b.c.). He leans on a staff, his right leg withered and dangling, his foot in theequinusposition. Roma is the oldest documented victim of poliomyelitis.

    In his bookA History of Poliomyelitis, John Paul of Yale University, who was a polio researcher and one of the foremost authorities on the history of the disease, discusses what...

  7. 4 The People versus Polio
    (pp. 30-39)

    Polio was not the most deadly nor the most contagious disease, but it was easily the most dreaded disease in North America in the first half of the twentieth century.

    Polio outbreaks amounted to scattered pockets of disease in the United States until the epidemic of 1916 in the northeastern part of the country marked a horrifying peak, with 2,448 deaths in New York City alone by October.

    The Department of Health ordered quarantines for polio victims and their families; windows had to be screened, bed linen disinfected, and household pets banned from a patient’s room. Children under age sixteen...

  8. 5 Freed from the Iron Lung
    (pp. 40-43)

    In 1952, a polio epidemic in Denmark gave rise to an invention that changed the lives of polio victims suffering from respiratory complications and revolutionized emergency room techniques throughout the world.

    Beginning in the mid-1930s, patients in danger of respiratory paralysis were placed in iron lungs, enormous metal boxes that enclosed the entire body up to the neck. Inside, the alternation between sub-atmospheric and atmospheric pressure caused the thoracic cage to move and kept the patient breathing. The machine was first developed by Dr. Philip Drinker and his team at the Harvard School of Public Health to provide assistance to...

  9. 6 Coming Along at the Right Time: Jonas Salk
    (pp. 44-54)

    At the end of World War II, prospects for the development of a polio vaccine appeared grim. The puzzle of the poliovirus still had many missing pieces, and polio researchers were haunted by memories of polio vaccine trials where things had gone very wrong.

    In 1935, after experimenting with a formalin-inactivated vaccine that seemed to produce no adverse effects on twenty monkeys, Dr. Maurice Brodie, who was working at New York University under Dr. William H. Park, rashly decided to administer his vaccine to 3,000 children. At the same time, Dr. John Kolmer of Temple University in Philadelphia had concocted...

  10. 7 Behind the Scenes
    (pp. 55-64)

    March 29, 1954. The Canadian edition ofTimeis hot off the press, and Toronto’s renowned Connaught Laboratories are featured in this issue’s cover story. Canada has just endured its worst polio epidemic the previous year.Time’s cover asks the question on everyone’s lips: “Polio Fighter Salk: Is This the Year?”

    Across North America, families are fretting over whether their children will be able to go to the local swimming pool or to summer camp in a few months’ time. The public is longing for news of substance about a vaccine that has been the subject of hopes, promises, and...

  11. 8 The Largest Medical Experiment in History
    (pp. 65-77)

    McLean, Virginia, April 26, 1954. Six-year-old Randy Kerr stepped up to receive an injection of the Salk polio vaccine. He was the first Polio Pioneer to participate in the Francis Field Trial, the largest medical experiment in history. The trial’s design, the result of protracted and lively debate among the NFIP and scientists, was intended to assess the safety and efficacy of the killed-virus vaccine. The families of nearly two million children volunteered for them to take part in the trial. These Polio Pioneers from 217 health districts across forty-four states in the United States were enrolled in the trial,...

  12. 9 The Race for an Oral Vaccine
    (pp. 78-88)

    On February 27, 1950, an eight-year-old boy from Letchworth Village, New York, received a prototype of the oral polio vaccine Hilary Koprowski had developed using the live, weakened (attenuated) virus. The boy suffered no side effects and Koprowski enlarged his experiment to include nineteen other children.

    At the time Koprowski was a scientist at Lederle Laboratories, a fast-growing pharmaceutical company. Since 1948 he had been working on a viral attenuation process:

    A spinal cord suspension infected with Brockman’s virus was adapted through successive passages on the brains of Swiss albino mice […]. By the seventh passage, the vaccine was safe;...

  13. 10 Revolution in the Production of Vaccines
    (pp. 89-100)

    The production of polio vaccines marked a turning point in the vaccine industry. For the first time ever, huge quantities of a vaccine—tens of millions of doses—were in demand and manufacturers needed to be both imaginative and daring to meet this challenge.

    The story of the industrial development of any product is rarely a public affair. Such episodes in the history of medicine are rarely written down, perhaps to protect industrial secrets, out of habit, or simply because no one looks into them.

    We had the good fortune of meeting and interviewing former scientists, technicians, directors, and employees...

  14. 11 Polio: Programmed for Defeat
    (pp. 101-122)

    Aligarh, Uttar Pradesh, Sunday, January 21, 2001, 7:30 a.m. In the courtyard of the local branch office of the Ministry of Health of Uttar Pradesh, Archana Mudger is standing next to a yellow school bus on loan for the day, giving out orders. The nineteen-year-old history student is surrounded by a crowd of mothers and mostly male students who tower above her, yet she is in her element. All eyes are on her; everyone listens intently, slightly anxious. The young woman holds a folder from which she draws out detailed, hand-drawn maps of some of Aligarh’s neighborhoods—not places people...

  15. 12 The End Game
    (pp. 123-131)

    Lokichoggio, Kenya, Saturday, November 18, 2000. The UNICEF cold room is buzzing with activity. It has been set up in a tent at the camp the United Nations uses as its base for the Lifeline Sudan operation. From here, UNICEF and nongovernmental organizations provide assistance to some 5.4 million inhabitants of southern Sudan, amid the ravages of the African continent’s oldest civil war.

    UNICEF employees load large ice boxes filled with oral polio vaccines into trucks. The containers will be transferred to five airplanes, not far from the camp, which fly the United Nations colors. The planes are scheduled to...

  16. 13 The Challenge of Eradication
    (pp. 132-148)

    As the year 2002 drew to a close, it became clear that the World Health Organization’s goal of eradicating all cases of polio caused by the wild virus would not be reached. Not only did the virus continue to spread, but the number of polio cases was higher than in 2001. In addition, virologists were troubled by another concern: cases of vaccine-associated polio were reported years after immunization campaigns with the oral vaccine. Eradicating polio would be more complicated than what had been generally expected.

    Worldwide, the successes of the polio campaign continued. On June 21, 2002, a meeting of...

  17. Notes
    (pp. 149-152)
  18. References
    (pp. 153-156)
  19. Index
    (pp. 157-162)
  20. Back Matter
    (pp. 163-164)