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The Age of Polio: How an Old Virus and New Toxins Triggered a Man-Made Epidemic -- Part 1, The Wrong Narrative

Polio triumph

By Dan Olmsted and Mark Blaxill

Polio is the iconic epidemic, its conquest one of medicine’s heroic dramas. The narrative is by now familiar: Random, inexplicable outbreaks paralyzed and killed thousands of infants and children and struck raw terror into 20th century parents, triggering a worldwide race to identify the virus and develop a vaccine. Success ushered in the triumphant era of mass vaccination. Now polio’s last hideouts amid the poorest of the poor in Asia and Africa are under relentless siege by, among others, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Eradication is just a matter of time, and many more illnesses will soon meet the same fate.

But based on our research over the past two years, we believe this narrative is wrong – and wrong for reasons that go beyond mere historical interest. The misunderstanding of polio has warped the public health response to modern illnesses in ways that actually make them harder to prevent, control, and treat.

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. 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.

This alternative narrative makes better sense of the natural history of polio, and it resolves a number of anomalies that remain to this day. It suggests why poliomyelitis outbreaks emerged, evolved, and exploded the way they did; it probably solves, for the first time, the enduring riddle of why Franklin D. Roosevelt was afflicted 90 years ago this summer on Campobello Island; and it may mean today’s billion-dollar-a-year eradication effort is misguided, if not downright quixotic.

These are large claims. Let us explain.


Polio was a strange illness, never fully understood even by those who devoted their lives to studying and subduing it. It was a summer plague, coming on in late spring and all but vanishing in the fall. Many thought contagion had something to do with water, and Americans kept their children away from swimming pools in droves.

There is a profound distinction between poliovirus – an enterovirus, one that enters through the mouth and takes up residence in the GI tract and bloodstream – and poliomyelitis, the paralytic form of the illness. In the vast majority of cases, the virus causes either a minor illness or an inapparent infection.

But in 1 or 2 in 100 cases, the virus somehow gets past multiple defenses and into the nervous system, where it finds its way to the anterior horn cells at the top front of the spinal column. There, it preferentially attacks the gray-colored motor neurons (polio means gray in Greek) and causes inflammation of the protective myelin sheath (myelitis). This interferes with nerve signals to the muscles and can lead to temporary or permanent paralysis of the limbs and the respiratory system. A small number of people who contract poliomyelitis -- on the order of 1 percent -- die.

The first recorded U.S. outbreak was in 1841 in West Feliciana, Louisiana (10 cases, no deaths). There was a half-century gap until the next cluster, 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.[i]

What is most remarkable about this list is that so few outbreaks of paralytic polio were recorded anywhere in the world before the latter 19th century. Poliomyelitis is considered an ancient scourge, but the evidence supporting that belief is quite threadbare. An oft-cited Egyptian drawing depicts a priest with a withered leg that could have stemmed from paralytic polio, but for most of recorded history there were few observations of the sudden-onset fever and paralysis in infants that characterizes the disease. The earliest well-documented case of infantile paralysis in an individual is widely considered to be Sir Walter Scott, afflicted as an infant in 1773.[ii]

 There is little question that the poliovirus was endemic in humans for millennia; there may even have been isolated cases of poliomyelitis for much of that period. Yet the poliovirus did not trigger widespread outbreaks of poliomyelitis. Setting aside for now the 1841 Louisiana outbreak, reported retrospectively, something seems to have happened around 1890 to launch The Age of Polio in the United States. And something else must have changed around the end of World War II to create the large modern epidemics seared into the minds of older Americans, thousands of whom are poliomyelitis survivors and almost all of whom know someone who was afflicted.

While we have not written about polio, we have seen this pattern before. In our book, The Age of Autism – Mercury, Medicine, and a Man-made Epidemic, we argued that something happened in the 1930s to launch The Age of Autism.[iii] We proposed it was the commercialization of ethyl mercury compounds for use in pesticides – seed disinfectants and lumber preservatives – and in vaccinations; we offered evidence of those inventions in the family backgrounds of the first autism cases identified in the medical literature, in 1943. Similarly, we proposed that the sharp rise in autism cases beginning around 1990 tracks with the federal government recommending several more mercury-containing shots.

Our attention was drawn to polio during our autism research when a virologist mentioned, in passing, that poliomyelitis could be triggered in some instances by injections. Called “provocation poliomyelitis,”[iv] this can happen when a needle stick punctures a nerve in the peripheral nervous system. An active poliovirus infection – typically, in a child exposed to the virus for the first time and not yet immune -- can gain access to the nervous system through a process called “retrograde axonal transport,” traveling back to the spinal column and triggering the dreaded paralytic form, poliomyelitis.

Such cases of provocation paralysis, we learned, occurred in Eastern Europe when antibiotics were excessively administered by injection; this practice led to multiple cases of poliomyelitis.[v] Bulbar polio – of the throat and respiratory system – was recognized as more common after tonsillectomies, again because nerve endings had been exposed.[vi] Outbreaks, then, can unquestionably occur as a result of an environmental injury, in these instances either excessive injection or surgery that led to peripheral nerve damage, in the presence of poliovirus infection.

We began to look at the poliomyelitis literature and found that another and much more comprehensive environmental theory of the disease had been put forward almost immediately after the early outbreaks, although it never gained mainstream attention. This theory proposed that what is called “polio” is not caused by a virus at all, but by poisoning from pesticides. In this theory, lead arsenate triggered the early clusters, and DDT kicked off the large outbreaks after World War II. (The pesticide theory has been championed in recent years by Jim West[vii] and by Janine Robert[viii].)

That really got our attention. In our research for The Age of Autism, we investigated a paralytic illness we believe resulted from an unrecognized interaction between a toxin and a microbe. Called general paralysis of the insane, or GPI, it was a gruesome and universally fatal outcome in a percentage of people infected years earlier with the syphilis bacteria. We proposed that a manmade mercury compound -- ironically used to “treat” syphilis -- allowed syphilis to gain entrance to the brain. When penicillin was developed in the 1940s and actually killed syphilis infections, GPI disappeared because one of the two requirements for the illness – the microbe – was destroyed.

We suggested that a number of other illnesses may follow a similar pattern in which microbes and metals interact, including, in some instances, autism. So the idea that an environmental insult – whether a needle stick or surgery or a toxic metals exposure – could be at work in outbreaks of poliomyelitis intrigued us.

But we did not find the claim that polio was simply poisoning by pesticides alone to be persuasive. The strong versions of both the virus theory and the pesticide theory – that it was entirely one or the other – are too simple to explain the pattern of evidence. The strong viral theory can’t explain the sudden emergence of poliomyelitis; the strong pesticide theory can’t explain the sudden protective effect of poliovirus vaccinations. Rather, we propose that poliomyelitis outbreaks are man-made events that result from the synergy of microbe and toxin.


A threshold question – one that requires an answer for our argument to make sense – concerns what scientists call biological plausibility. What is the mechanism by which the virus and a toxin could cause such damage? We’ll look at the particular properties of lead and arsenate shortly, but our fundamental idea is that both the poliovirus and the pesticide enter the body by the same route -- they are ingested -- and both end up in the stomach. There, the toxin could damage the stomach lining in such a way that the virus gains access to peripheral nerves. This kind of virus-toxin interaction (perhaps with arsenic or lead acting alone as the toxin) took place sporadically before 1890 and increased dramatically, we propose, with the invention of more potent insecticides like lead arsenate. With the advent of DDT, the interaction became even more dangerous, dramatically increasing the number of cases.

The idea that toxins have played any role in poliomyelitis outbreaks is not widely accepted, to say the least. In his Pulitzer Prize-winning 1995 book, Polio, Peter Oshinsky dismisses it in a sentence: By 1952, the peak year of the epidemic, the search for answers had grown so desperate that “a few blamed the dumping of poisons into the environment, especially the pesticide DDT,” he writes.[ix]

Yet on the very next page, Oshinsky describes a farm family, frantic about the epidemic sweeping Iowa that awful summer. The parents “tested the well water – it was fine – and used extra DDT to drive away flies.” Still, nine of their 11 children were affected, two of them paralyzed. The family “had done everything they were told to do,” Oshinsky writes, “everything they could. Why had it happened to them?”

Why, indeed? The search for an answer begins in the 1850s in Medford, Massachusetts.

(Next: The rise of epidemic polio.)


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.


[i] B. Trevelyan, M. Smallman-Raynor, Andrew D. Cliff, “The Spatial Dynamics of Poliomyelitis in the United States: From Epidemic Emergence to Vaccine-Induced Retreat, 1910-1971.” Ann Assoc Am Geogr., June 2005; 95(2): 269–293.

[ii] “Famous People Who Had Polio,” Post-Polio Resource Group. http://www.pprg.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=72&catid=35

[iii] Dan Olmsted and Mark Blaxill, The Age of Autism: Mercury, Medicine, and a Man-made Epidemic. (New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2010).

[iv] H.V. Wyatt, “Provocation Poliomyelitis: Neglected Clinical Observations from 1914 to 1950.” Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 55:4 (1981:Winter), p 543

[v] Peter M. Strebel, et al. "Intramuscular injections within 30 days of immunization with oral poliovirus vaccine -- a risk factor for vaccine-associated paralytic poliomyelitis." New England J of Med (February 23, 1995), pp. 500-506.

[vi] “Medicine: Tonsils & Bulbar Polio,” Time, April 12, 1954. http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,823341,00.html

[vii] Jim West, “Images of Poliomyelitis – A Critique of Scientific Literature,” http://www.whale.to/m/west5.html

[viii] Janine Roberts, “Polio Research Resources,” http://www.sparks-of-light.org/polio-research-docs.html

[ix] David M. Oshinsky. Polio: An American Story. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005). p 62.



Correlation does not prove causation.


Hi, I'm in Japan, ships samples of children, such as the GPL Institute AutismBe.Has been workingMy name Noguchi TK and Service Corporation
Always, AGE of AUTISMI let me lookToday we will talk about polio uproar in JapanThe polio epidemic in our country, but sporadic outbreaks have been reported in the Taisho years, now often go to Showa outbreak happens.There was a large epidemic in the Kansai Showa between 15-13 years, the exact number of patients because there was no notification system did not know.In 1948 reported polio system will deal with now is understanding the situation.Furthermore, in 1959 due to sharp increase in patients treated with the polio epidemics became specified.And arrowhead point was to be delayed in our country against poliomyelitis, 1960 (1960) has never caused a pandemic once did.The epidemic started around September of that year, the patient had begun to spring out of the year still in place.Mine was the center of the epidemic zone in central Hokkaido, Yubari City, with a focus on in particular.Moreover, during this epidemic of poor prognosis bulbar type (respiratory paralysis caused by polio virus reached the medulla), and many were killed 8-12% of patients.For one 鉄No respiratory paralysis in the United States) was invented device is used, called such a device is not in our country, I was not able to use only a small number of U.S. distribution.The 1960 epidemic not only in Hokkaido, a nationwide polio type 2 and 3) are prevalent, especially in Iwate, Aichi, Yamaguchi, Ehime and Miyazaki spans each province, including, in Kitakyushu and outbreaks, patients reported polioThe number will be 5,606 to record the name, the dark clouds of polio ChiMemashita panic in Japan.
However, in Tokyo and Osaka is not so, there is no occurrence Attention. The Yubari in Hokkaido and Kitakyushu. Kitakyushu, Japan, is a large industrial area around there is also the largest steel mill was The surrounding sea. Screw was dirty enough to melt the ship. Yubari is Japan's largest coal-mining town. Heavy metals and chemicals, causing children to polio paralysis Was diagnosed. Sabin vaccine emergency imports from Canada in 1961 and the Soviet Union Polio from the following yar, plunged This is also probably the same way the United States,

Dan E. Burns, ATUSA

I’m reminded of the decades-long effort to end "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" in the military. Leaders of the opposition like Alex Nicholson spoke out across the country, sometimes under police protection, to end this poisonous policy.

But there is another "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" going on in the media, and it's about the poisoning of our children. Canary party supporters like me will know we're making an impact when we require police protection to speak out. Yes, we will have our day of victory on this issue too. Thanks, Dan and Mark, for the important work you are doing to pave the way.



When my mum was a young girl and polio was running rampant, my grandmother made all of her eight daughters (none were ever vaccinated-none ever contracted polio) play with the little girl next door.

The little girl next door had contracted polio (naturally or from the polio vaccine)?

So, because her mum restricted her from going outside (her legs were paralysed), my mum and aunties would go and play with her. - "one size does not fit all!"


P.S @ Cassandra-Thanks for The Age article.


The question of polio and sanitation analyzed http://insidevaccines.com/wordpress/2010/07/01/polio-and-sanitation/

pass the popcorn

Sorry I mispelled half your name, Dan. Make that "The Blaxsted Effect." (Or Olmstill)

pass the popcorn

I propose a new term for the synergistic effect of microbes and toxins that cause new, man-made, super-illnesses: "The Blaxstead Effect."

We should have learned from the old margarine slogan: "It's not nice to fool mother nature." (How fitting that margarine turned out to be bad for us.)

K Paul Stoller MD

It is interesting that the countries that still have polio are also those countries that still use and manufacture organochlorine pesticides.

Also, if Pharma had been held responsible for the SV40 viral contamination in the polio vaccine I doubt we would even be in the age of Autism.

Are Vaccines Safe?

Interesting! There are so many problems that man has created. Man is always trying to manipulate nature rather than work with nature the way everything else in nature does, symbiosis.


Excellent work as usual! I can't wait to read more....

Kevin Barry

The success of the US polio vaccine program is exaggerated because it compares a much narrower 1961 post vaccine definition of polio to a broader 1954 definition.

The success of the current developing world eradication effort is also exaggerated by using the Acute Flaccid Paralysis diagnosis instead.

There are billions of dollars at stake. It pays to exaggerate success.

“... (T)he U.S. is presented with numbers like this:

…in seven years the Salk vaccine reduced the incidence of polio in the United States by more than 96 percent, from 38,476 reported cases in 1954 to 1,312 in 1961. [5]

These statistics are simply not accurate. The 1954 “polio” data includes all paralysis. While some of this may have been from polio, in reality, much of it was from other causes. With the change of diagnostic criteria in 1955 that reduced case numbers, followed by laboratory testing that excluded vast numbers of other causes, the 1961 data only includes the small subgroup of paralysis caused by poliomyelitis. This is then compared with the catch-all 1954 definition. Because it was impossible to know what proportion of 1954 data were really caused by poliomyelitis viruses, the 1954 data was left as it was, and nothing of the back story is revealed to the readers. When people say: “we know the polio vaccine saved us from huge epidemics of this devastating disease” they are basing their knowledge on misinformation.”


In 2000 WHO announced:
"There were 719 cases of wild poliovirus in 2000. This represents a 99% reduction in cases since the programme began in 1988, with 350,000 estimated cases from lameness surveys. [5]"

Note the similarity to the announcement of a 96% reduction in the U.S. by 1961, based on enlarged pre-vaccine numbers and selective post-vaccine numbers....

...Over 600,000 people coming down with some degree of paralysis in a period of 13 years seems like cause for concern.

The Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI), spearheaded by national governments, the World Health Organization (WHO), Rotary International, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and UNICEF, is the single-largest, internationally-coordinated public health project the world has ever known. Since 1988, more than two billion children around the world have been immunized against polio thanks to the unprecedented cooperation of more than 200 countries and 20 million volunteers, backed by an international investment of more than US$ 5 billion. [6]

$5,000,000,000.00 and 20 million volunteers.

What about the 608,832 cases of AFP worldwide since 1996 (not counting the 26,014 cases of AFP from January 1st through May 21, 2010)?


Cynthia Cournoyer

And they vaccinate over and over in other countries and it isn't gone yet.


Dan and Mark,

Kudos for reviving the REAL story of polio.

The cornerstone of the modren vaccination program is nothing but a sham.

Jeannette Bishop

Thank you for investigating the polio-pesticide connection. Investigation into factors not popular to scrutinize in the past may have prevented much harm today, I think.


Oh and by the way.
Wild chimps in Africa can also get polio, I saw that on National Geograhics when they filmed Jane Goodall.

One of the baby chimps was dead from polio and there were several that were crippled.

Jane commented on it and thought that the chimps had caught polio from the natives that lived around the area.

Maybe it had more to do with spraying for mosquitoes or something. It would be more interesting to know what were the agricultural practices of the natives living around the park.


When I was in college in the mid 70's the microbiology text books said:
Polio became a problem when society became so much cleaner.
Before people were really, really dirty and polio was caught by very small babies. Small babies apparently could handle polio better than adults or older children. Then society got really, really clean nad polio was introduced later in life and thus caused problems

Back in the mid 70's they also thought that flowering plants came along and poisoned the dinosaurs too.

I want my money back. Everything I learned in school was wrong.


Dan, Mark, Thank you for yet another fascinating article.

You are probably aware of this but just in case:

Maurine Meleck

Coxsackie virus is also a springtime(and warm weather) virus.
A deadly combo of virus plus local pesticides like McDonalds burger and fries?

Anne McElroy Dachel

Mark and Dan, you raise serious questions about polio and about the next manmade disease. The public has the simple mindset, fostered by the medical community, that disease like polio come from viruses. All we need is a vaccine and we're protected. No one would suspect that a manmade toxic could be behind outbreaks like polio. We're told that there are now 80,000 untested chemicals that our children are exposed to. The possibilities of damage are truly a nightmare.

Anne Dachel, Media

L Land

Did FDR really have polio? Wasn't he just a little old?
Some have suggested Guillain-Barre syndrome instead.


Yep, Maurine, I was talking about coxsackie, I had to "throw" in Kawasaki, because there seems to be some connection to pesticide use and that illness, as well.
I just did a little google search ..
it seems there was some crossover in diagnosis..very interesting indeed!!

Maurine Meleck

Barbara, I assume you are referring to coxsackie virus, another enterovirus. Another one of my faviorite viruses to talk about. I have had what I thought was coxsackie virus 4 times (really nasty cases as my friends know from my photos of it)in the last 2 years. On the 4th round I saw a dermatologist(who took biopsies) who then sent me to a oncologist and they both insisted it wasn't coxsackie, but now an unknown disease to them. After a gazillion blood tests, they came up blank. I have read that years ago, when the polio virus was in full swing, coxsackie virus was considered part of the polio virus and then later on--they made a distinction between the two.
PS I am still reading Hooper's The River--albeit slowly with its 900 pages and tiny paperback print.

david burd

Yes, since it has been an endemic enterovirus forever with the human race and you are right it takes an overlay of toxic factor(s) to cause significant affliction!

Mothers since time immemorial have tended to their infant's bowel waste and passed the "polio" virus to their infants within weeks of birth, and since breast feeding also passed on antibody protection, an infant was exposed but easily passed through a phase of "infection" - acquired their own antibodies, and then went through life fully protected.

However, after WWII mothers began switching to disposable diapers and tended to less "hands-on" to their baby's rectal opening - in my opinion depriving enough babies from exposure to the "polio virus" when they SHOULD have been exposed, and with no ill effects. THEN - literally after WWII and into the early 1950's DDT was massively used and integrated all through Western society including homes and gardens, thus also providing the combined effect Dan and Mark have brought to our attention.

thanks Dan and Mark ---

david burd


This is interesting and scary to read. What is one left to do, don't eat? plant your own? move to rural farmland? do not vaccinate your kids? I really like to read articles like this but I also like to read the answers, solutions, what can we do to stop this problem, what can I middle class family do to prevent their kids to develop autism, why in the same family under the same circumstances there are siblings not sharing the condition, are we genetically pre-discposed to develop the condition given the appropriate circumstances? or its random

Kent Heckenlively

Mark and Dan:

This is a wonderful article. I look forward to the next installments.

All the best,
Kent Heckenlively

Maurine Meleck

The subject of polio has long interested me because as a young child I had what is considered a mild case of polio(non parayltic type) It was profuse diarrhea and muscle pains in the arms and legs. In those days, doctors came to your house so I spent time in bed, but was never hospitalized. When the epidemic hit bigtime in Minneapolis in the summer, my parents wisked us off to our relatives in Green bay, Wisconsin. Nobody else in my family was affected.
the way I was. There was one boy in my huge high school class who suffered the ill effects of the paralytic type and walked with a major limp and a cane. Sister kenny inspired my sister at the time to grow up and become a physcial therapist. I have thought(in my reading of polio) over the years that the widespread testing of chemicals done by the government(with airplanes dumping them over major cities) had a major effect on the rise of the epidemic. This was the period of the Cold War following World War 11 and I know too that chemicals were also being tested for bio-warfare.
The rise of the polio vaccine(oral one, in particular) had a lot to do with the fact the Roosevelt had paralytic polio and thus began the March of Dimes campaign and the fight to find a cure. I am still convinced that the polio vaccine(forced upon all children in the school lunchrooms) caused the rise of the cytomegalic virus and then AIDS later on. My sister spent a year in bed suffering from CMV in the 70's.
Thanks Dan and mark for writing on this subject. It is the one disease that pro-vaxers(no matter what) always come back to when they they discuss the absolute need for vaccinating our children.


Interesting, and today we have another virus that appears to be interacting with chemicals with similar little understood synergy. In the mid 1970's there was a new bug in vogue, a nasty one, it came days after chemlawn sprays, attacked small children ,offered many similarities to polio .I remember my mom discussing this with the doctor, "could the sprays of chemical soup ( sometimes 30+ individual chemicals over a summer sloshing around in spray tanks with water of unknown origin ( at times siphoned from local creeks and streams)be causing this newer and nasty coxackie? She was very determined to compare the polio virus to the coxackie one, and managed to get the attention of a Dr.Epstein, who agreed if nothing else, the spraying of recreation fields, hospital campuses, school yards was putting children at risk. Note, 30 years later...there are smoke free campuses , yet the dangers of pesticide use are visible everywhere, little signs saying keep children off, picked up before the soccer games, babies toddling in parks ,signs ignored as was the intention. I don't follow this with her great passion, however, I can't help but have my ears perk when I read something like this, or hear how coxackie has become a dangerous illness in China causing deaths. Yes, it makes sense to me that chemicals can potentiate ,mutate and work in synergy with live pathogens. We have created a few monsters. I have always wondered ,as well, if some of the live viruses injected into our children, can do the same in the presense of chemical exposure, perhaps causing Kawasaki which looks very much like malathion poisoning. Very interesting topic.


Look into the use of arsenic to color wallpapers as one clue to some early cases. And after energetic and concerned mothers got the arsenic out of the wallpapers it immediately moved into use in pesticides.

For a detailed analysis of provocation polio http://insidevaccines.com/wordpress/2010/09/07/polio-causes-and-effects-part-i/

Tonsillectomies massively increased the rate of the worst kind of polio, bulbar, where the lungs became paralyzed and the person had to be placed in an iron lung. http://insidevaccines.com/wordpress/2010/10/10/polio-causes-and-effects-part-ii/

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