Here’s something worth knowing about the cluster of “polio-like illnesses” identified by doctors in the San Francisco area: Some of the first outbreaks of actual poliomyletis in the United States more than a century ago happened in the same area.
Is history repeating itself? Are more cases on the way, and not just in California? It’s a question worth asking, and far more important to public health than headline-grabbing measles and whooping cough outbreaks. But don’t hold your breath, because the real answer may say more about the nature of modern illness than most mainstream medical “experts” would care to consider.
As news outlets reported on the cases on Monday – “five patients who developed paralysis in one or more of their limbs between August 2012 and July 2013” in a 100-mile radius in California, CNN said – I was drawn back to the series Mark Baxill and I wrote in 2011, called The Age of Polio: How an Old Virus and New Toxins Triggered a Man-Made Epidemic.
In that 12,000-word series, we argued that a fresh look at the evidence suggested that for millennia, polio was almost always a harmless enterovirus – a stomach bug – until late in the 19th century. That's when a new pesticide called lead arsenate allowed the virus access to the nervous system, where it reached the spinal cord; this combination was the trigger for the first outbreaks of the paralytic disease called poliomyelitis.
“The reality, we believe, is that the virus itself was just half the epidemic equation -- necessary but not sufficient to create The Age of Polio," we wrote. "Outbreaks were not caused solely by poliovirus – the microbe was an ancient and heretofore harmless intestinal bug -- but by its interaction with a new toxin, most often innovative pesticides used to treat fruits and vegetables.” When children who were infected with the virus ate lead arsenate-laden produce, they were exquisitely vulnerable.
As evidence, we cited the first dozen or so outbreaks that occurred in the 1890s, just as lead arsenate was invented and first used commercially. The first of those clusters was “in 1893 in Boston (26 cases, no deaths). Then, in 1894, came what is widely regarded as the first major epidemic, in Rutland and Proctor, Vermont (132 cases, 18 deaths). Thirty more outbreaks – from such seemingly disparate locations as Oceana County, Michigan, and California’s Napa Valley -- were reported in the United States through 1909. The worst by far was New York in 1907, with 2,500 cases and a five percent mortality rate, a harbinger of the 1916 epidemic in the Northeast that killed 2,000 in New York City alone.”
Ah yes, California’s Napa Valley, just above San Francisco. Anyone? Anyone? We suspected widespread early use of lead arsenate in grape-growing country. In fact, the San Francisco area was home to three of the first dozen outbreaks – a quarter of the total. According to the peer-reviewed journal paper, “The Spatial Dynamics of Polio,” they were San Francisco and Napa, 1896 (three victims); San Joaquin Valley, 1899 (four victims); and San Francisco and vicinity, 1901 (55 victims). One fourth of the earliest clusters, in and around San Francisco.