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