Polio: An American Story - David Oshinsky

*Winner of the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for History

 

For such an in-depth look at how we got to now in regards to poliomyelitis (polio for short), it was an enjoyable and easily readable book. There is drama in the real life story of trying to contain a virus that strikes children. And Holy Scientific Egos, Batman!

 

The story begins with outbreaks from the late 1880s and how the disease became epidemic when hygiene standards were elevating and other diseases were decreasing. Then FDR, then a rising star in the political arena, was stricken. His recovery paved the way for a new kind of charity (National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis), and the race for a vaccine.

 

There is seventy years worth of history, both with the foundation's fund raising and the science behind the vaccine. There are a lot of people to keep track of; some were doctors, some were researchers, and foundation employees. The work was built very slowly; while Dr. Jonas Salk is the celebrated scientist, his work was basically the culmination of breakthroughs of other scientists, such as John Enders and Albert Sabin. Sabin's vaccine was used around the world to eradicate polio; Salk's was used predominately here in the US and Netherlands. Ultimately, due to some complications with Sabin's vaccine, the shots given to kids today are Salk's version.

 

Oshinsky does give a page or two to the AIDS-polio vaccine link that was circulated in the 1990s, but only to discredit that link (and the faulty science that went into that thinking). He did the same with the SV-40-polio vaccine link. He also mentions that polio is still not eradicated from the world due to hostilities and uncooperativeness of certain countries (India, Pakistan, and Nigeria). He also takes in the time periods he is writing about - the Jim Crow South and how that played into incidence rates and problems with the vaccine trials, poverty levels, WWII, and Great Depression. The science and the social were mixed well into the story.

 

Overall, an enjoyable and engrossing read but very in-depth, so it will take time to read and absorb the story.