Polio is an infectious disease that holds a special allure for Pittsburghers. It was here that Jonas Salk conducted the research that led to his famous vaccine, forever changing the relationship between humans and this virus. I often imagine what it must have been like to witness Dr. Salk's triumphant return to Pittsburgh--police escort and all--after the vaccine was shown to be efficacious. Dr. Salk's achievement, however, is not something that stands alone; it is part of a pantheon of scientific advances (not the least of which includes Albert Sabin's version of the vaccine).
There have been many books written about this virus, Jonas Salk, and other aspects of the fight to rid the world of this virus. One such book cost me a considerable amount of money (and is now available for $3.50).
I really enjoyed this book primarily because it provided a broad, historical, inductively-based scientific approach to the topic. Instead of providing a simple chronological listing of the landmark achievements that led to the control of polio, Dr. Williams employed an approach that places the reader on the trail of scientific inquiry that painstakingly led scientists, step-by-step (and down some unfortunate blind alleys), to higher rungs in the ladder of knowledge which culminated in Eckard Wimmer's synthesis--from scratch--of polio in 2002.
Some highlights of the book include: a description of the well-known rivalry between Sabin and Salk (which included a particularly nasty bit of correspondence in which Sabin wrote to Salk that "love and kisses were being saved up" for him); DA Henderson's discovery of vaccine-associated paralytic polio (VAPP) linked to the Sabin vaccine in the 1960s; the anti-vaccine movement's opposition to the vaccine; a thorough discussion of the discredited hypothesis of the polio vaccine being the origin of HIV; speculation that FDR may have actually had Guillan-Barre Syndrome (not polio); the "fear campaign" designed to spur public concern in the US over this disease, which was never as big a threat to US public health as other diseases; and countless other anecdotes that make for good reading.
As of today polio eradication remains a daunting task with 89 cases occurring in 9 countries this year, 2 of which are new to the list from 2013. Nigeria, Afghanistan, and Pakistan are the 3 most important heads of this hydra that must be decapitated if eradication is to succeed. It remains to be seen whether this eradication will be successful but one thing is certain: the polio vaccine and the individuals who created it, or whose work led to its creation, have thoroughly destroyed the ability of this virus to wage war on mankind. It only remains for humans to allow the destruction to be total.