Monday, February 02, 2009

Infantile Paralysis

Those of you born after the mid-fifties missed one of the two biggest worries we had as children: Polio. (The other was being obliterated by a Russian atomic bomb.)

When I was a child, the March of Dimes spent a lot of money paying for iron lungs for children paralyzed by the poliomyelitis virus. I can remember being told to stay out of the ditches that ran deep after every rain or I might catch it, and, as it turned out, that wasn't altogether wrong.

As soon as the first cases showed up, the swimming pools all closed. Trucks sprayed DDT in thick clouds up and down our street every summer, to kill the mosquitoes that might carry the bug -- even though by the early 1950's, they knew better. The disease was contagious person-to-person, and you could get it from contaminated water or food.

So, tonight on PBS, on American Experience, there was a show about the conquest of polio, dealing with everything from F.D.R. to the development of the Salk and Sabine vaccines. And tonight, I learned, for the first time, that I was part of the biggest field test of an untried vaccine in U.S. history.

My mother signed me up.

After having tried the stuff on a relatively few children in orphanages and homes for the feeble-minded, sixty here, eighty there, eventually a couple thousand, the powers-that-were at the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis -- not the government, but a private organization -- determined that a larger test was needed. So fearful were parents of their children getting the dread disease and wasting away, more than two million of them offered their kids as test subjects. Some of them never showed up or failed to sign permission forms, but my mother wasn't one of them. If it wasn't safe, why, the government wouldn't have allowed it, would they?

As one of the people on the show said, the idea of informed consent didn't exist in those days.

In the spring of 1954, I was in the first grade at Brookstown Elementary School, in Baton Rouge. One fine day, we were all loaded onto buses and driven to the public health center downtown, where we stood in line and had a syringe -- which looked huge to me then -- full of something injected into our deltoids. (There was a placebo involved in some areas, but Baton Rouge declined to be part of that, it was the real deal or nothing. I remember the fluid as being a bright, almost phosphorescent orange, but that might be unintentional hyperbole.)

We later went back for a booster.

Fortunately for me and the others in our city, the killed-virus vaccine worked. A year later, when the results showed an 80-90% effectiveness rate and the Salk vaccine went into general production, some of the labs accidentally released bad batches that were full of live viruses, and thousands of kids got sick, some were paralyzed, and some died.

Fascinating. Fifty years on, and I never knew we were part of a large-scale test. It would never happen today. Of course, those were the days when, if you had a bad sore throat, they would sometimes zap it with enough X-Rays to sterilize Moon Base Alpha. Or you could go to Sears, stand on a wooden platform in the shoe-department, and look down at a fluoroscopic view of your own feet, zapping them as much as you wanted while the shoe clerk was off fitting your brother for his new Buster Browns ...


Menduir said...

Although polio was never a concern for me, I still grew up in the shadow of atomic annihilation (70s, early 80s). I still remember the air raid siren tests when I was in school … although, by that time, no one bothered to duck and cover. Living close to an aircraft parts manufacturer, we knew we were on the list. We also knew that survival was a pipe dream if the missiles flew.

As kids, we used to joke about the kind of shadows we’d leave on the wall from the blast. No different, I suppose, from the childhood rhymes about the plague (Ring Around the Rosies) or other dark things children teach each other and deal with in their own ways. I sometimes wonder what rhymes or games today's children are teaching each other about terrorists.

~ Jas.

Steve Perry said...

We were three miles from the largest petrochemical complex in the U.S. Number three or four on the Soviet targeting list. My father worked there.

We knew we were gone if the balloon went up, and in that part of Louisiana, you couldn't do much of a bomb shelter -- the water table was only a few feet down.

I used to have nightmares about mushroom clouds.

Jason said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jason said...

We were not too far from a naval airbase. I forget where it was on the targeting list, not that high but not that low either.

What I do remember was that the base would be hit and we had bare minutes from the strike to being scorched off the face of the planet.

We did the duck and cover drills, but no-one believed them.

The two most accepted responses among the kids were to head toward the strike to shorten the wait or to jump into the tunnels under the town. (We had a bunch of tunnels/catacombs running under the town.)

Kids can be surprisingly practical.

Anonymous said...

I live in Omaha NE. Strategic Air Command is just a few miles down the road. We knew we wouldn't get just one bomb, we'd get several.

steve-vh said...

My mother-in-law was one of the unlucky who contracted Polio. She was "cured".
But now decades later, the disease has resurfaced as a nightmarish cocktail of other maladies.
Her health is a complete and utter mess, poor soul.

jks9199 said...

I grew up outside Washington, DC. Nike missile sites were within a couple of miles of my neighborhood...

We didn't do duck & cover in the 70s when and 80s, probably because by then, the odds were good that if anything hit DC, we'd be glowing dust & ash, whether or not we hid under desks.

Dan Moran said...

I used to have nightmares about mushroom clouds

You and me both. I used to have a recurring nightmare where I was standing at a window and looking out across Los Angeles and a nuke would go off and the wave front would shatter the glass into my face before the heat hit me. Had that dream a bunch. Wasn't an accident my first novel was "The Armageddon Blues."

The only other dream I ever had that frequently, I was driving a car down the street -- tampa avenue -- where we lived when I was a child. I'd be driving way too fast and would smash headon into the brick wall at the end of the street. Had that dream long before I could drive, and still had it well into my 20s.

Steve Perry said...

And tornadoes, that was the other sporadic nightmare. My father drilled us in what to do -- which was wrong -- if one was approaching. We were to run and get into the car, which was under the carport. He felt a metal roof was safer than the wooden house, which had no crawl space or cellar.

I guess the glass in the car wasn't part of the equation.

And now and then, falling off the Mississisippi River bridge on Hwy 190 would creep in. During driver ed class when I was fourteen, I had to drive across that bridge and in the outside lane, both ways. That dream actually went away after I had been driving a couple of years -- my sense of control, I think.

These days, when I have dream-fights, my stuff works and I win.

The tornadoes and mushroom clouds still pop up now and again, though rarely.

Duck and cover, my ass.

Worg said...

I had a terrible nightmare the other night that I was interviewing for employment at USAMRIID. I won't really go into what went on in the dream, other than the fact that it was a "horribly unqualified" dream. And that was before the klaxons started. And it went on and on after that.

Biowar has always been what's given me nightmares. I had at least four nightmares in the last year about ebola, and one about weaponized rabies.

My best friend from kindergarten is actually a PHD at USAMRIID right now, working on the devil knows what. Better him than me.