In the United States the first outbreak of poliomyelitis, 26 cases, was in Boston in 1893, at the same time as its citizens were desperately spraying the just-invented insecticide lead arsenate to combat the plague of imported gypsy moth grubs that was denuding their trees.
Then the formula for lead arsenate was published in 1894, so people could mix up their own to use against a variety of pests including the codling moth whose worms damaged their apple crops. Use of the insecticide became much more wide-spread, as did outbreaks of poliomyelitis, which now included deaths. Outbreaks were usually in summer and autumn when apples and other fruit and vegetables were sprayed.
In the 1940s lead arsenate was replaced by DDT, and it was sprayed everywhere; on crops, in houses, on meals, in water supplies, particularly in the hope of preventing polio. People believed polio was carried by insects because it appeared in summer.
After the worst polio outbreaks in the early 1950s, spraying with DDT became less popular; people were starting to think it might not be good for them, and a few insects were becoming resistant to it. Then in 1962 Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring about DDT use in agriculture was published, which lead to DDT going very much out of favour and use stopping altogether not long after. Around this time poliomyelitis subsided.
Poliomyelitis could have been caused by any number of factors that led to lesions in the spinal cord. The strongest contenders are pesticides alone and pesticides in concert with infection with various enteroviruses, other viruses and nano-sized bacteria.
In 1955 the first polio vaccine came out, but it was injected, so it stimulated antibody production in the blood, while the target virus they named poliovirus is an enterovirus that lives in the gut. This meant the vaccine could not stop infection or transmission of poliovirus (this is also the case with today’s inactivated polio vaccine, IPV, used here in Australia and in other developed nations).
The Sabin oral live virus vaccine, the first vaccine that prevented infection and transmission of the virus (because it targeted the virus where it lives) came out in 1963 and poliomyelitis subsided. Poliovirus had been circulating through our digestive tracts harmlessly for thousands of years, by the way.
When the first vaccine came in the diagnosis of polio was standardised.
Here is the WHO diagnostic criteria in 1954, before the vaccine:
“Spinal paralytic poliomyelitis: Signs and symptoms of non-paralytic poliomyelitis with the addition of partial or complete paralysis of one or more muscle groups, detected on two examinations at least 24 hours apart.”
The changes were:
1. Non-paralytic polio was no longer called polio.
2. Paralysis had to last for 60 days rather than 24 hours.
Also, pathology testing for poliovirus in the stool was introduced.
It’s no wonder polio went away so quickly. There was still polio-like paralysis, but due to the change in definition and in many cases failure to find poliovirus in a pathology test, it was called various other names such as coxsackie virus, ECHO virus (enteroviruses) and some generic names such as aseptic meningitis, acute flaccid paralysis, acute flaccid myelitis and transverse myelitis.
DDT is still produced and used widely in India and parts of Africa, and there’s as much polio-like paralysis in India today as there was in 1980, except instead of being called polio it’s called acute flaccid paralysis.
We know polio is often at least partly caused by an infectious agent because the live oral vaccine given today in the third world spreads polio and paralysis is often preceded by flu-like symptoms including fever which can spread amongst contacts. Investigators suggest environmental toxins such as pesticides damage the gut lining and gut immune system and also nerves, allowing normally harmless viruses to enter the nerves and cause lesions in the spinal cord.
Another way of viruses getting into the nervous system is by needle-stick injury, which can cause ‘provocation polio’. Doctors back in the 1940s started to recognise routine vaccination for diphtheria and whooping cough was causing paralysis in the limb injected, and it became policy to suspend routine vaccination while there was a polio outbreak (the needle injury allows polio-causing viruses to enter the nerves if there is an active infection). Melbourne journalist Andrew Rule wrote an article about his friend Kevin Norbury, who suffered polio paralysis in his arms and nearly died, and who has researched this topic. Here’s three articles:
Polio and losing the use of a hand did not stop Kevin Norbury (Herald Sun) – by Andrew Rule
Suffer the little children (The Age) – by Kevin Norbury
Acute Flaccid Myelitis and Routine Childhood Vaccinations: This is Nothing New by Marcella Piper-Terry (Nov 2016)
There’s outbreaks of acute flaccid myelitis (AFM) in the United States today; they call it a “polio-like illness”, they are clustered in summer-autumn, they include deaths and those patients with breathing paralysis use a portable ventilator rather than an iron lung. Bear in mind AFM would have been diagnosed as polio before the polio vaccine, when there was no pathology testing, but in these outbreaks poliovirus has not been found in pathology tests. Here’s an article about 2018’s outbreak:
Polio-like syndrome caused by several viruses, CDC says – NBCNews (Nov 2018)
Sister Elizabeth Kenny was an Australian nurse who treated thousands of polio patients from the early 1930s till her death in 1952. She treated paralysed limbs with gentle movement, massage and hot compresses with great success, and set up many clinics in Australia and overseas that used her method.
This treatment was very different from the painful and cruel medical practice of cutting tendons and putting paralysed limbs in casts for 3 months to 2 years, which was sure to cause permanent paralysis and distortion in limbs that would otherwise have often only had temporary paralysis. We wouldn’t do that today to a paralysed patient who we hoped would recover, such as today’s AFM patients, would we?
Sister Kenny has been called the “mother of physiotherapy” and her story is really worth looking up – there’s lots about her on the internet.
What do you think?
Do you think the polio vaccine saved us from polio? Do you believe poliovirus is the real cause of polio? Do you think polio vaccines deserve to be held up as the ultimate defence of vaccines, with the cry… “what about polio?”