The Age of Polio: How an Old Virus and New Toxins Created a Man-made Epidemic -- Part 4, Post-War Epidemics and the Triumph of Vaccination
By Dan Olmsted and Mark Blaxill
Life magazine for August 15, 1949, reflected the booming exuberance of the times. The cover, “How to Dress for Hollywood,” featured a buxom starlet in suitably sultry attire. There were ads for DeSotos and Nashes and Chevys to mobilize families and their growing broods of children; cigarettes like Pall Mall, whose “greater length of traditionally fine, mellow tobaccos serves as a longer, natural filter to screen and cool the smoke on the way to your throat”; toothpastes to brush away smoker’s breath and shine stained teeth, and articles on everything from a new sailboat called the Sunfish to a town in Louisiana that cut its taxes in half by installing slot machines.[i]
But twin specters of death and destruction hung over this bright baby-boomer world – the anxiety over atomic annihilation if the Cold War turned hot, and every parents’ most proximate fear for their children, polio.
There were two articles on polio in this August issue. One was titled “Summer season brings epidemics of this uncontrollable disease” and noted that “throughout the nation last week the threat of polio was growing. Starting with some spotty outbreaks during May and June the disease had reached near-epidemic proportions during the sultry drought-ridden month of July. By Aug. 1, 8,300 cases had been reported, a 43% increase over last year. Polio seemed more uncontrollable than ever.”
The peak was still ahead – 1952 would bring 58,000 cases -- but the path to prevention had already accelerated faster than any of the cars on display in Life’s pages in 1949. The year before, John Enders’ research group in Boston had cultivated the poliovirus in human tissue, a Nobel-winning breakthrough that cleared a path for Jonas Salk’s vaccine, which followed in 1955. Successful field trials among several hundred thousand children known as Polio Pioneers were announced on April 12, 1955 – the tenth anniversary of FDR’s death. Church bells rang out across the nation.
The jubilation was justified in terms of the vaccine’s effect on the poliovirus – by 1961, only 161 cases of poliomyeltis were confirmed in the United States, just 29 more than the first epidemic year of 1894. But with the outbreaks ending, basic research withered. As Life noted, “how polio is spread, how the virus enters the body, they do not know.”
In 1949, the same year as the Life article, Drs. Morton S. Biskind and Irving Bieber published “DDT Poisoning – A New Symptom With Neuropsychiatric Manifestations” in the American Journal of Psychotherapy. “By far the most disturbing of all the manifestations are the subjective reactions and the extreme muscular weakness,” they reported.[ii]
In subsequent papers and testimony, Biskind linked DDT directly to cases of poliomyelitis – including a Dec. 12, 1950, statement to the Select Committee to Investigate the Use of Chemicals in Food Products, United States House of Representatives.[iii] He quoted another doctor that “wherever DDT had been used intensively against polio, not only was there an epidemic of the syndrome I have described but the incidence of polio continued to rise and in fact appeared where it had not been before.
“This is not surprising since it is known that not only can DDT poisoning produce a condition that may easily be mistaken for polio in an epidemic but also being a nerve poison itself, may damage cells in the spinal cord and thus increase the susceptibility to the virus.”
“Facts are stubborn,” Biskind concluded, “and refusal to accept them does not avoid their inexorable effects -- the tragic consequences are now upon us.”
The theory was also advanced by Ralph R. Scobey, who in 1952 gave a statement to the same House committee. Titled “The Poison Cause of Poliomyelitis and Obstructions To Its Investigation,”[iv] it described associations between harvest seasons, fresh fruit consumption, and polio epidemics.
The next year, Biskind made the link even more explicit: “In the United States the incidence of polio had been increasing prior to 1945 at a fairly constant rate, but its epidemiologic characteristics remained unchanged. Beginning in 1946 the rate of increase more than doubled.” Yet far from looking into a toxic etiology, he said, “virtually the entire apparatus of communication, lay and scientific alike, has been devoted to denying, concealing, suppressing, distorting and attempts to convert into its opposite, the overwhelming evidence. Libel, slander and economic boycott have not been overlooked in this campaign.[v]
But the idea that the active compounds in pesticides could cause paralysis was hardly farfetched. Pesticides are designed to cause mayhem with the nervous systems of their targets.
Lead arsenate was an inorganic pesticide, DDT an organochlorine compound. Both cause neurons to fire randomly, interfering with the ability of the brain to communicate with the rest of the body and leading to paralysis, spasms and death. DDT’s unintended impact on other living things was recognized after Silent Spring, though the focus then was on wildlife, not humans. That was enough to get both DDT and lead arsenate banned in the United States.
Because DDT required a co-factor – the poliovirus – to trigger outbreaks of poliomyelitis, the effect on humans was missed. Adding to the complexity may be the fact, observed in “horse orchard disease,” that living things react with different levels of sensitivity to toxins.
So DDT, we believe, succeeded lead arsenate not just as the insecticide of choice, but as an even more potent environmental co-factor in polio outbreaks. Understanding the role these toxins played was a significant insight and deserved serious attention, just as the early concerns about lead arsenate might have ended The Age of Polio almost as soon as it began.
The DDT theory, like the lead arsenate observation, failed because it wrongly dismissed the equally important role of the virus itself. It could not account for the prompt collapse of polio in the U.S. after the vaccine was developed. The vaccine clearly eliminated outbreaks in the United States. Subsequent attempts to show that domestic DDT use waned about the same time, or that polio was reclassified as other illnesses in an elaborate “scam” to hide the vaccine’s ineffectiveness, don’t really stand up against the evidence.
The pesticide theory was an important one, and Biskind pointed to the synergy of toxin and virus when he suggested DDT might damage cells in the spinal cord and “increase the susceptibility to the virus” – though that is not the mechanism we believe was at work. But the virus hunters were not about to be distracted as they closed in on a vaccine that could stop the epidemics in their tracks. This meant, as we shall see, that in areas where the vaccination effort was less successful, co-factors could continue to trigger outbreaks.
Before addressing that, however, there are two more obvious tests to which we need to put our theory. Infantile paralysis occurred before lead arsenate was invented in 1893. How do we explain that? And what about polio outbreaks that have continued in the absence of either lead arsenate or DDT pesticides? Do they fit our new narrative?
Dan Olmsted is Editor and Mark Blaxill is Editor-At-Large of Age of Autism. They are co-authors of The Age of Autism -- Mercury, Medicine and a Man-made Epidemic.
[ii] Morton S. Biskind, M.D., and Irving Bieber, M.D., “DDT Poisoning – A New Syndrome With Neuropsychiatric Manifestations,” American Journal of Psychotherapy, 1949, p. 261
[iii] Morris S. Biskind, M.D., “Statement on Clinical Intoxication From DDT and Other New Insecticides, Presented before the Select Committee to Investigate the Use of Chemicals in Food Products, United States House of Representatives, December 12, 1950.” Journal of Insurance Medicine, May 1951.
[iv] Ralph R. Scobey, M.D., “The Poison Cause of Poliomyelitis and Obstructions To Its Investigation, Statement Prepared for the Select Committee to Investigate the Use of Chemicals in Food Products, United States House of Representatives,” April 1952, published in Pediatrics, April 1952. http://www.sparks-of-light.org/Scobeyt52-poisoncausepolio.html
[v]Morton S. Biskind, M.D. “Public Health Aspects of the new insecticides.” Am J Dig Dis. 1953 Nov;20(11):331-41.