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Mena Arkansas News covering Polk County and the surrounding area

Reflections from History and Faith Victory Over Polio, COVID-19 and Ourselves

By Jeff Olson

One of the strengths of America has been the individual freedom and economic opportunities and incentives she has provided for men and women to utilize their intellect, abilities, faith and determination to pursue their dreams, ambitions and goals – not only for themselves but for the good of society. This has been especially true through creative and innovative advances in the field of medicine. Case in point: Poliomyelitis, better known as polio, is a serious infection caused by a virus which may attack the nerve cells of the brain and spinal cord. It is known also as Infantile Paralysis because it often would strike infants or children and lead to paralysis.

Although major epidemics of Polio were unknown prior to the twentieth century, the disease has caused paralysis and death throughout much of human history. In the 1880s some epidemics began to occur in Europe and soon after in the United States, beginning around 1900. At its peak, in the 1940s and 1950s, polio would paralyze or kill hundreds of thousands of people worldwide yearly. The fear and public reaction to these epidemics gave rise to mobilization in research and development of new methods to prevent and treat the disease.

At the forefront of this effort was Dr. Jonas E. Salk, an American research scientist. Salk was born in 1914 in New York City, the oldest of a garment industry worker’s three sons. He helped pay for his education by working after school and earning scholarships. He graduated from the New York University School of Medicine in 1939, where he did research with viruses in the laboratory of Dr. Thomas Francis Jr.. In 1942, he went to the University of Michigan on a research fellowship, and advanced to the position of assistant professor of epidemiology. There, Salk worked again with Dr. Francis (then head of Michigan’s School of Public Health) to develop influenza vaccines. In 1947, Salk began teaching at the University of Pittsburgh and in 1948 he undertook a project funded by the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (NFIP) to determine the number of different types of polio viruses. This gave him an opportunity to extend this project towards developing a vaccine against polio. Sixty-seven years ago this week, March 26, 1953, Dr. Salk announced that he had successfully tested a trial vaccine against polio. Among the first to receive it were Salk, his wife, and their three sons. Having found the vaccine safe, it was further tested in 1954 during a mass trial on 1,830,000 schoolchildren. The trial was sponsored by the NFIP (later becoming the March of Dimes). The vaccine was announced safe and effective sixty-five years ago in April 1955. In countries where Salk’s vaccine has remained in use, polio has been virtually eradicated.

  Salk received many honors, including a citation from President Dwight Eisenhower and a Congressional gold medal for “great achievement in the field of medicine.” He refused all cash awards and when asked in an interview who owned the patent to the vaccine, Salk replied “There is no patent. Could you patent the Sun?” In 1963, the Salk Institute for Biological Studies was established in La Jolla, California. Dr. Salk spent his last years searching for a vaccine against HIV. He died of heart failure in 1995 at age 80.

  I cannot end this article without returning to my opening paragraph and comment about the creative and innovative advances in medicine in the United States and elsewhere where freedom and opportunity have fostered such. The Coronavirus, like Polio was, is being subjected to the highest intensity of research by some of the best medical minds on the planet in seeking a vaccine. However, medical solutions cannot alone solve this, just as they couldn’t for Polio. Just as important will be the determination, patience, resilience, responsibility, and care for others required of the American people to provide the time necessary to contain and control COVD-19. In other words, it comes down to how many of us understand and will practice the self-discipline always required for a self governing nation, one where individual freedom and love for one’s neighbor are paramount. In such a nation, a vaccine will have a reasonable chance to treat and save as many lives as possible, especially the elderly and those with compromised immune systems.

  Finally, let us be inspired by Dr. Jonas Salk and his successful work in the victory over Polio. If that victory can be achieved, and nearly seventy years ago at that, then it is well within the possibilities of twenty-first century medicine to win a victory over COVD-19. Again, what modern medicine cannot fix is perhaps the biggest hurdle and likely even a more consequential pandemic in the long run: uncertainty, panic and disregard for others.

  It is also timely and prudent that we come to understand just Who our provider really is (Matthew 6: 25-33) and Who may be trying very hard to get our attention (II Chronicles 7:13-15). Victory over ourselves through God: This may be the most difficult (but winnable) battle of all, that is until we recognize who the enemy really is.

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