According to Dr. Bernard Greenberg, head of the Department of Biostatistics of the University of North Carolina School of Public Health:
In order to qualify for classification as paralytic poliomyelitis, the patient had to exhibit paralytic symptoms for at least 60 days after the onset of the disease. Prior to 1954, the patient had to exhibit paralytic symptoms for only 24 hours. Laboratory confirmation and the presence of residual paralysis were not required. After 1954, residual paralysis was determined 10 to 20 days and again 50 to 70 days after the onset of the disease. This change in definition meant that in 1955 we started reporting a new disease, namely, paralytic poliomyelitis with a longer lasting paralysis.1
As I wrote in my piece “The Salk ‘Miracle’ Myth“…
Under the new definition of polio, thousands of cases which would have previously been counted as polio would no longer be counted as polio. The change in the definition laid the groundwork for creating the impression that the Salk vaccine was effective.4
“In 1949, San Angelo, Texas outbreak of polio in kids….Since poliovirus was often found in human feces and on the legs of houseflies, Dr R.E. Elvins, the city health officer, called for a heavy spraying of DDT, singling out the open pit toilets on the “Latin American” and “Negro” side of town….. Blaming the epidemic on the “wetbacks” who migrated north each year, monitoring the health of migrant workers become the target…
San Angelo bought two fogging machines to bathe the city in DDT. Twice each day, flatbed trucks would rumble through the streets, spraying the chemical from large hoses while children danced innocently in the mist that trailed behind. As a goodwill gesture, the local Sherwin-Williams store provided DDT at no cost, urging customers to drench the walls and furniture in their homes…..
By mind-June more than half of San Angelo’s 160 hospital beds were filled by polio patients, almost all of them children under 15.
In truth, polio was never the raging epidemic portrayed in the media, not even at its height in the 1940s and 1950s. Ten times as many children would died in accidents in those years, and three times as many would die of cancer. Polio’s special status was due, in large part, to the efforts of the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, better known as the March of Dimes, which employed the latest techniques in advertising, fund raising and motivational research to turn a horrific but relatively uncommon disease in to the most feared affliction of its time.
There is a series of five newsreels I recently found that sheds some light on the polio epidemic during the immediate post-war period and offers another perspective to that health crisis, which ultimately fueled the development of Jonas Salk’s inactivated injectable polio vaccine (IPV) in 1954 and its licensure in 1955. To view these films, just click on the following:
- DDT | Weapon Against Disease (1945)
- DDT | Spraying for Polio Over Rockford, Illinois (August 27, 1945)
- DDT | Spraying for Polio in San Antonio, Texas (May 27, 1946)
- DDT | Spraying for Polio Everywhere (1946)
- DDT | Spraying Children for Polio in the United States (1947)
To put the polio story into context, it’s important to note the number of reported cases of poliomyelitis during the late-1930s and early-1940s. During 1933-1937, there were a total of 37,463 cases (4,930 deaths), followed by 31,993 cases (4,165 deaths) in 1938-1942, 12,449 cases (1,115 deaths) in 1943, 19,029 cases (1,433 deaths) in 1944, and 13,619 cases (1,189 deaths) in 1945.1