I have been told again and again by health authorities that the polio vaccine is a marvellous lifesaver – and I had accepted this on trust. As no one I knew doubted this, I had no reason to question it. I knew however that it is easy to invent history. If a false history is repeated often enough, the chances are that people will believe it. It is simply a matter of most of us not having time to check all the facts for ourselves.
But now I knew of the possibility that pesticides might cause polio, I had a very clear question to answer. There were no great American polio epidemics after 1956. What stopped them: the withdrawal of the pesticides – or the introduction of the vaccine?
Most modern histories of the polio vaccine say its launch went smoothly – although many mention a brief hiccup early on called the ‘Cutter Incident,’ describing this as a simple error that was quickly rectified. But what I learnt from reading contemporary newspapers and medical reports was very different.
I found the triumph and relief accompanying the launch of the Salk vaccine was extremely short-lived. A medical historian of the time, Dr. M. Beddow Baily, reported: ‘Only 13 days after the vaccine had been acclaimed by the whole of the US press and radio as one of the greatest medical discoveries of the century, and 2 days after the British ministry of health had announced it would go right ahead with the manufacture of the vaccine, came the first news of disaster. Children inoculated with one brand of the vaccine [the Cutter] had developed poliomyelitis. In the following days more and more cases were reported, some of them after inoculation with other brands.’
Within two weeks nearly 200 vaccinated children had gone down with polio. This produced near panic in the White House. It was not yet summer. Polio normally did not strike at this time. President Eisenhower had publicly endorsed this vaccine – and did not want any failures on his watch. US Health Secretary Oveta Hobby thus went to see the Surgeon General to sternly say the president needed to be spared further embarrassment! (Click to Article)