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Friday, April 20, 2018

Within the living memory of the oldest Baby Boomers is a terrifying specter that haunted childhood in America. It was a disease, a disease that could have no symptoms, or could begin with a chill and then cripple or kill the victim. It could spring up at school, at a birthday party, at a summertime swimming pool. It mostly affected children, but it also paralyzed a future president, Franklin Roosevelt, who surmounted it but never recovered from it. It infected tens of thousands of new victims a year in the decade after World War II. There was no cure and there was no vaccine. The disease is polio.

With the anti-vaxxers holding sway among today’s stupid set, Nina Gilden Seavey’s 1998 documentary A Paralyzing Fear: The Story of Polio In America, now streaming on Amazon and Snag Films, is a timely and urgent reminder of the heartbreaking effects of an unchecked, brutal virus.

For most of those infected, polio was no problem: they might never feel it, or it could seem like a cold or a bum knee, and they would get over it. But for 5 percent of victims (and that meant thousands in the worst years) it brought paralysis — slight, moderate, or complete — or even death. As A Paralyzing Fear shows in detail, from America’s first large outbreak in 1916 through the early 1950’s, crutches, leg braces, and even constant confinement in full-body iron-lung breathing machines (think of an MRI scanner you cannot leave) were a part of childhood in this country as people struggled to deal with shriveled muscles and failing, withered limbs. There were treatments, like painful exercises and barely tolerable heat packs, but none were very good. The victims in hospitals were often isolated from their parents for fear of infection, and even medical staff avoided them. Afflicted children longed for human contact. Relatives avoided the funerals of the dead.

Polio’s most famous victim was of course Franklin D. Roosevelt, who fell ill in 1921 at the age of 39. He was paralyzed from the waist down but overcame his handicap while minimizing it to the public. He founded a rehabilitation spa in Warm Springs, Georgia for himself and other “polios.” (The spa was segregated; black polios in the south went to the Tuskegee Institute.) The documentary has rare and surprising footage of FDR frolicking in the pool at Warm Springs with his withered legs, utterly at home alongside the children and adults.

A Paralyzing Fear does a splendid job of telling the story of the survivors in their own moving words: you can’t shake the image of a middle-aged woman who at the time of the filming has been in an iron-lung, confined from the neck down, for over 40 years, or the adult man recalling the mockery and rejection he suffered in high school because of his disability. The film also palpably conveys our parents’ and grandparents’ justified fear of polio, and the excitement and urgency of the national effort — all privately funded via The March of Dimes charity — to find therapies and, ultimately, a vaccine. In that era, Jonas Salk — whose vaccine was created in 1951 and widely dispensed four years later — was considered Superman, Babe Ruth, and Christ rolled into one bespectacled man. Salk never patented his vaccine, and because of the jealousy of his peers, he never won the Nobel Prize or admission into the National Academy of Sciences. But he achieved something greater: Thanks to Salk and Alfred Sabin, the developer of an improved vaccine, polio has been eradicated from the U.S. and much of the world.

But the threat is growing again. Pockets of polio exist in impoverished parts of the world, places that are accessible by airplane. And thanks to superstitious, ill-informed, selfish anti-vaxxers and the craven U.S. state governments that permit them to opt out of mandatory vaccinations, a traveler could, within half a day, bring that scourge back to America. The terrifying potential consequences  are on view in the history captured in A Paralyzing Fear. That history must be seen, and its repetition must be prevented. As one of the interviewed victims says of the vaccine, “For me, it was too little, too late. But I was glad that nobody else would have to go through this.”

See the film, and vaccinate your kids.

Photo: Amber Case via Flickr

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Copyright 2015 The National Memo

53 Responses to Film Review: When There Was No Vaccine

  1. Yeah, let’s drum up some nostalgia for iron lungs.
    I’m so tired of stupid people who seem to revel in their ignorance.

    • The Republicans are the ones who have been lying about it from the beginning, from the nonexistent “death panels” to “defunding Medicare” to “losing insurance.” Oh, and “job killing.” The only jobs the ACA kills are in the FUNERAL industry.

      • You mean that the six million or so people who lost their employer-based coverage last year thanks to Obamacare really didn’t lose their coverage? Somewhere in the Land, a village is missing its idiot. Call home. They’re looking for you.

    • How many Americans will die because of the GOP’s lies about Obamacare?

      And how many Americans will die if the GOP succeeds in destroying the ACA, offering NOTHING that in any way reasonably replaces it?

      The GOP’s idea of health care is this: if you can pay for it, you get it. If you can’t, you die. Hope you can afford a tombstone for yourself or you kids, cuz we aren’t going to help you with THAT, either.

      • If Obamacare is as wonderful as you seem to think, then why are Obama, members of his Administration, members of Congress, Justices of the Supreme Court, etc exempt from the ACA’s ridiculous mandates?

        • Because the esteemed members of congress voted themselves a package waaaaaay better for themselves, at yours and my expense, that’s why.

          • No. That is not why. Millions of Americans are exempt for the exact same reason that the President and other government officials are; because their jobs provide a level of health insurance that meets or exceeds minimum ACA requirements. Have a job that provides decent health care benefits? YOU’RE “EXEMPT” TOO.

        • Except, well, they aren’t exempt. Either you’re woefully ignorant or a deliberate liar, because that’s been debunked for years.

  2. Sabin’s oral vaccine is potentially dangerous as the live virus within it may be insufficiently weakened. Salk’s injected vaccine using a dead virus is much safer. See PBS’s NOVA video entitled Vaccines – Calling the Shots. For details.

  3. I am old enough to remember this. I remember the pictures of kids in iron lungs. And I had friends who ended up in iron lungs. It was terrifying. You were risking your life if you went to a public swimming pool. How thrilled we were when the vaccine came out and we could finally swim again.

  4. My brother and I were born in 1948 and 1949; my father refused to allow us to be vaccinated for anything, I don’t know why, ignorance I assume. When my parents divorced in 1960, first thing my mom did was have us vaccinated. Thank you, mom!

  5. Or perhaps a reminder of how scary the medical industrial complex is. Did you know that only 50 years ago this was legal but still kept secret?

    • I have a couple problems with the article you linked. First, It discusses attenuated vaccines, and polio vaccinations are inactivated. Secondly, infections from attenuated vaccines almost always occur in immunocompromised peoples or as a consequence of a reversion to virulence. This is because the strains used in attenuated vaccines are specifically designed to have a low virulence. So, while of course the vaccinated carry the virus (that’s the entire point), the strain they carry isn’t virulent. And even if infection occurs after an attenuated vaccination, it is less serious than a wild strain. The article is unclear as to whether it is talking about infections as a consequence of reversion to virulence or transmission between immunocompromised persons. Either way, mass immunization is an important strategy in helping prevent further infections as a consequence of a reversion and protecting the immunocompromised. While a reversion to virulence may occur in an individual it takes a large pool of unvaccinated people to keep the virus alive in a community.

  6. I am old enough to remember the fears of polio and the actual cases of polio. It was before there were any vaccines against that horrible disease. All public swimming pools were closed as the pools would bring too many people together and one could infect the others. One of my friends in junior high school was crippled by polio and years later as an adult was still walking with hand crutches. When the polio vaccine was developed I gladly made certain that my children had the vaccine. Today, as almost every American child is vaccinated as are most children around the world, polio, like deadly small pox as all but been eliminated thanks to life saving vaccines. Today in parts of the war torn Middle East polio is making a comeback since there is no access to the vaccines. I would hate to go back to a world without vaccines.

  7. I had older parents who were a doctor and a nurse (if my dad were still alive he’d be 100!) I was just talking to my mom about this film… she was telling me about how some parents were refusing to give their kids this vaccine when it first came out. So in response to that, a lot of doctors refused to see any patients who weren’t vaccinated. The anti-vax parents got all up in arms and angry that the doctors wouldn’t see their kids and the doctors were like “Too bad. I’m not putting my other patients at risk because you want to be stupid.” The doctors should do that again today!

  8. Absolute BS. Most of the illnesses wiped out were based on sanitary living conditions and preceded the injections. When I was a kid there were 6 shots from birth to the age of 4… now there’s an obscene schedule of 49 shots.

    And now after outbreaks attributed directly to Obama’s invitation of every imaginable disease from Guatemala and beyond, informed consent advocates are being smeared as “anti-vax” and even “anti-science”.


    Anyway when you’re done absorbing all the government crap propaganda garnering support bio-chemical-assault (forced vaccinations) , take a moment to watch at least one balanced documentary. Start with this one:

    • My husband’s aunt was an active, healthy woman from a very wealthy family with very sanitary living conditions. She contracted polio as a young mother of 4 kids in the early fifties and was paralyzed from the neck down until she died in 1981. I will never forget meeting her in the late 70’s. A girl I went to school with became blind from measles. Too bad the media doesn’t interview people like that who are still living with damage from childhood diseases or whose loved ones were left permanently brain damaged, crippled, had birth defects, etc. from diseases that we can now easily prevent with vaccines.

  9. If Obama will lie to you about keeping your insurance and your doctor, he will most certainly lie to you about everything else.

  10. Republicans and pharmaceutical companies hate a healthy citizenry. Big pharma likes idiots who oppose vaccination. Think about it rationally as a committed capitalist. You are the cash cow. Live with it.

    • The anti-vaxxers aren’t just anti-government types, they are also anti-business types as well. This issue seems to have a little bit of both the left and the right.

  11. I was 10 yrs old in 1950. I remember stopping in to see a friend of mine who laid in his iron lung in his living room (no TV or Internet) looking into the tilted mirror in front of his face to greet me. I can’t shake that image from 65 years ago. Those who oppose vaccination should have had such an experience.

  12. Polio is a specter waiting to return, if it wasn’t for idiots it would have gone the way of smallpox by now.

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