By Janice Nichols, author of “Twin Voices: A Memoir of Polio, the Forgotten Killer”
In April 1954, I became one of 1,829,916 children in the US, Canada, and Finland who participated in the Salk Vaccine Trial. They called us “Polio Pioneers.” We were told that our participation was necessary to protect present and future children and young adults from the ravages of polio, a cruel killer and crippler that my family knew all too well. The vaccine was licensed in the U.S. and elsewhere in 1955.
My parents were eager to allow my participation in the vaccine trial. You see in fall 1953, a polio epidemic had struck my suburb of DeWitt, New York USA. In the end, three children died including my twin brother, Frankie. I was temporarily paralyzed but my parents were told that I would eventually recover. Because polio has three viral types and I only had natural immunity to one of the three types, my pediatrician advised my parents that a vaccine was the only way to protect me. My parents were not about to take any chances with my life. Moreover, they were eager to spare other families the terrible loss we had endured.
Fast forward to the present day:
In 1952, the year before polio claimed the life of my twin, there were 600,000 cases of polio worldwide. The relentless work of over 20 million people involved in the Global Polio Eradication Initiative has rendered eradication in sight. Yet, inconsistent funding and anti-vaccine rhetoric threaten the health and welfare of the young all over the world.
The public needs to appreciate the consequences of failure to eradicate this dread disease: The World Health Organization predicts that if polio is not eradicated within the near future, we will have lost our best chance to rid the world of a virus that can render someone paralyzed or dead within a matter of hours, and, by mid-century, we could have more than 10 million children paralyzed by a disease that can be completely prevented by vaccine.
In 1953, Frankie and I were at the mercy of the polio virus—our epidemic occurred before the vaccine was tested and licensed. Although I miss my twin every day, I pray that his death is a reminder to all people that failure to heed the warning of the medical and public health communities has dire consequences.
The week before polio struck our first grade classroom, my twin and I were busy anticipating “Halloween Trick or Treat’ activities with our neighborhood friends. Life was simple and full of wonder. Yet on the day after Halloween, Frankie died (a mere sixty-one hours after admission to the hospital). He was a beautiful, active little boy who died in an iron lung because he was unable to breathe or swallow on his own.
Take a good, long look at the picture of my twin. Don’t let other children suffer his plight…
Now that we have a cheap and effective vaccine, there’s no reason why any child should share Frankie’s fate.