In order to understand the concerns parents and grandparents have about the most recent outbreak of a polio-like illness such as acute flaccid myelitis (read yesterday’s PediaBlog post, “Another Mysterious Spike,” about AFM), it helps to gain insight from people who actually experienced the scourge of poliomyelitis firsthand. Pediatrician Roy Benaroch tapped the wisdom of his childhood pediatrician and mentor:
“Polio. I’ve seen polio.”
Last night, I was speaking with one of the most experienced pediatricians I’ve ever met, Dr. Jack Burstiner. I’ve known him for 50 years. I would have known him even longer if I had been born earlier. He lived in my neighborhood, two doors down. He was my pediatrician.
Jack is almost 90 years old. But he still looks like a pediatrician. He’s got a smile a child could trust, now hidden under a white mustache. His green eyes twinkle when he talks about his patients, the kids he’s seen. There are some things about a pediatrician that never change.
Every pediatrician has indelible memories of nights on call as interns and residents seared into our brains. So does Dr. Burstiner, who was working as a pediatric intern at a busy city hospital during his first summer there, “when polio was wild”:
“That’s where they’d all come, the kids with polio. They didn’t look right. They’d be dragging a leg, or not moving right. Sometimes an arm wouldn’t move, but usually a leg. And all night, every third night, I admitted all of them. It was just me. I’d do the spinal tap, and I’d look in the microscope, and I’d count the cells. If they had a lot of cells, that was polio. Of course we knew it anyway, but we had to tap all of them to be sure. All night long.”
In the United States in 1955, there were 29,000 cases of paralytic poliomyelitis. Dr. Burstiner figures he evaluated a small chunk of them:
“It’s funny,” Dr. Burstiner said. “It was a big hospital, and upstairs – up above the emergency department, and the wards, the rooms the patients – upstairs were some of the smartest people in the world. They had dedicated their whole lives to fighting polio, and they knew all about it. But we still couldn’t really do anything to treat it. I was there, this intern, and I could tap them and I’d admit them, and then hopefully they’d keep breathing…
“100 cases, I think I admitted, just in that one month. And all of those smart people upstairs, what could they do? But you know what happened next? The vaccine came out, and everyone wanted it. And in just a few years, it wasn’t 100 a month in one hospital. There wasn’t any, there was no polio anymore. I saw more polio in that one month than there was in the entire country, just a few years later.”
Just like that, polio was eradicated, first in the United States where the Salk and Sabin vaccines were developed and, later, everywhere else around the world. Since that time, medical science has developed new vaccines for other horrifying diseases that have put parents’ minds at ease, leaving descriptions of now preventable diseases caused by H.influenzae (Hib), S. pneumoniae, measles, varicella, and others to be read in the textbooks of today’s crop of pediatricians-in-training. Which is Dr. Benaroch’s main point:
There’s a lot that hasn’t changed. Parents still worry about their kids, and kids still get sick. But there are many diseases that parents just don’t have to worry about anymore. That’s incredibly good news for you and your family. Protect your children, protect your communities, and help be a part of making the world healthier for the future. Vaccinate.
Read the rest of Roy Benaroch, M.D.’s post on his excellent blog, The Pediatric Insider, here.
Read more polio-related posts on The PediaBlog here.