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Published April 14, 2020

THE VIEW FROM MY SEAT

COVID-19 is not the first virus to threaten Texas

By Ernie Williamson / The Bulletin

I In harrowing times like these, it is important to remember that Covid-19 is not the first deadly virus to attack us.

We have persevered through many similar challenges.

Texans in the 1800s battled cholera, yellow fever, dengue fever, diphtheria, measles and whooping cough.

In modern times, there’s been St. Louis encephalitis, SARS, MERS, H1N1, Ebola and AIDS.
And then there was polio, a disease us older folks remember well.

Polio is a virus that attacks the nerve cells or central nervous system and can cause paralysis or death.
To this day, I recall a Sunday morning in the early 1960s, when it seemed as if everyone in my hometown was lined up outside our elementary school.

We were waiting to get a sugar cube. Not just any sugar cube, but a pink-stained one that had been laced with an oral vaccine to protect us against polio.

Those of us who grew up in the 1940s and early 1950s knew about the dangers of polio, also then called “infantile paralysis” because it primarily struck children.

One of the worst scoldings I ever got from my mother came after she caught me floating ice cream sticks in a street puddle. She was afraid I would get polio.

In some ways, polio was more feared than deadly. More children died in accidents or from cancer.
But it was, however, crippling on a large scale. And for years there was no cure. We were all terrified.

We had seen March of Dimes posters of crippled children with heavy braces and canes. The posters were everywhere. Even more frightening, we had seen news coverage of children being placed in “iron lungs” to help them breathe.

And we knew about Franklin D. Roosevelt, who had contracted polio in 1921. Later, as president, he helped found what would become the March of Dimes Foundation, an organization that played a big role in publicizing the disease and funding research.

The Houston area was particularly hard hit by the polio epidemic between 1943 and 1954. According to League City historian Heather Green Wooten, Texas was the state hardest hit by the epidemic, and Harris County had more cases than any other county.

In her book, “The Polio Years in Texas: Battling a Terrifying Unknown,” Wooten says a polio epidemic swept through the Houston area every other year.

In 1952, the worst year for the polio outbreak, there were 4,000 cases in Texas and more than 700 in Harris County.

The epidemics were so prevalent that the nation’s first center dedicated to caring for polio patients opened here. The Southwestern Poliomyelitis Respiratory Center evolved into what is today known as TIRR Memorial Hermann, one of the world’s foremost hospitals for research and rehabilitation.

Because it was easier to use and cheaper, the oral vaccine we lined up to take that day, developed by Alfred Sabin, replaced an injectable vaccine introduced by Jonas Salk in 1955. We now use an improved version of the Salk injectable vaccine in this country, but much of the world still uses the oral vaccine.

The bottom line: Thanks to the Salk and Sabin vaccinations, the U.S. has been polio-free since 1979.
So as bleak as things appear now, we can rest assured that somewhere in this country, a scientist will discover a cure or a vaccine for Covid-19.

And let’s hope that whoever makes the discovery is as generous as Salk and Sabin. Although they were rivals, they did have one thing in common: neither patented his vaccine.

Salk believed that the vaccine belonged to the people. On April 12, 1955, the day his vaccine was declared safe and effective, legendary CBS newsman Edward R. Morrow interviewed Salk and asked who owned the patent.

“Well, the people, I would say,” Salk replied. “There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?”
Although the Sabin oral vaccine is no longer used in this country, it made a lasting imprint in our culture. The vaccine was the inspiration for “A Spoonful of Sugar Helps the Medicine Go Down” in the 1964 "Mary Poppins" movie.

(Ernie Williamson welcomes reader input. Please contact Ernie at williamsonernie@gmail.com. Or, send letters in care of The Bulletin, PO Box 2426, Angleton, TX. 77516)