I love watching old black and white newsreels from the first half of the 20th century. It’s a fascinating period of history, and it’s one of the few in which we can go back and revisit almost as if we were there. There was a span of years immediately after World War II, however, that is particularly interesting, because it doesn’t normally get a lot of attention, compared to the war years and the “the fabulous ’50s.” The second half of the 1940s often tends to get short-changed, perhaps because it was more of a transitional time of rebuilding and regearing after the war in preparation for getting back to normallife in the United States.
There is a series of five newsreels I recently found that sheds some light on the polio epidemic during the immediate post-war period and offers another perspective to that health crisis, which ultimately fueled the development of Jonas Salk’s inactivated injectable polio vaccine (IPV) in 1954 and its licensure in 1955. To view these films, just click on the following:
To put the polio story into context, it’s important to note the number of reported cases of poliomyelitis during the late-1930s and early-1940s. During 1933-1937, there were a total of 37,463 cases (4,930 deaths), followed by 31,993 cases (4,165 deaths) in 1938-1942, 12,449 cases (1,115 deaths) in 1943, 19,029 cases (1,433 deaths) in 1944, and 13,619 cases (1,189 deaths) in 1945.1
The number of cases had clearly risen in 1943 but had begun to dramatically drop in 1945, not rise. However, there still existed a fear of the disease in the country due to upward spikes in 1943 and 1944 and the occasional serious epidemics that had been occurring since 1910. One of the worst ones had taken place in New York City in 1916, with more than 27,000 reported cases and some 6,000 deaths.2 Plus there was the tremendous public exposure that the disease had garnered due to the fact the President Franklin D. Roosevelt himself had polio. His legs had been paralyzed in 1921. In 1938, President Roosevelt sponsored the establishment of the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (NFIP).3
Despite the declining cases of polio in the U.S., in 1946, President Harry S. Truman declared war on polio. In a speech from the White House, President Truman said:
The fight against infantile paralysis cannot be a local war. It must be nationwide. It must be total war in every city, town and village throughout the land. For only with a united front can we ever hope to win any war.2
Almost immediately, the US government stepped up its nationwide mass fumigation campaign using the extremely toxic chemical DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane). The goal was to exterminate mosquitoes, which were believed to be spreading polio. In a Universal Newsreel (produced by Universal City Studios) from 1946 showing mass DDT spraying in San Antonio, TX,4the narrator can be heard saying:
With a possibility of a grave infantile paralysis epidemic, San Antonio health authorities attack germ carriers on a citywide front. With war-discovered DDT and special sprayers, sections of the city are literally fogged with the insecticide in the fight to stop the spread of polio. Every suspected spot is sprayed. The drastic cleanup is ordered as polio and alive diseases show alarming increase. Even streams come in for disinfecting, and in the parks precautions are taken to prevent gatherings of youngsters. Literally tons of DDT are used on this dread disease that attacks our young. Again, war, destructive in parables, contributes one of its discoveries to save life.4
The DDT fumigation effort in the U.S. had actually been going on since at least 1945. In another Universal Newsreel, narrated by Albert Grobe, you can see a North American B-25 Mitchell bomber aircraft loading up with DDT and then flying over Rockford, IL on August 27, 1945 releasing the toxic chemical.5 The narrator can be heard saying:
Today’s target for this B-25 is Rockford, Illinois—a peacetime mission to spread 500 gallons of DDT, the Army’s miracle insecticide over the city, stricken with an infantile paralysis epidemic. By spraying the city, authorities will test the theory that insects are carriers of the dread germ. Air Force pictures show the method devised by the Army’s branch of preventive medicine. Flying at an average altitude of 150 feet, the plane sprays a strip more than 150 yards wide at the rate of 215 gallons a minute. A bomber turns to the ways of peace, becomes an instrument of science, and may become the means of saving countless lives.5
As the DDT campaign proceeded, the incidence of polio began to sharply rise in the U.S. The number of reported cases of polio in the country in 1946 hit 25,191—nearly twice the number as in the previous year.1In 1947, the number of cases dropped to 10,737 (580 deaths), but then rose again to 27,680 (2,140 deaths) in 1948.6
The number of cases remained high during 1949-1951, with a total of 103,719, or an annual average of 34,573.7
In 1952, the number of polio cases peaked at 52,879, and then began to decline to 35,592 in 1953, 38,476 in 1954 and 28,985 in 1955.8The rates of polio were already well on a downward trend by the time the Salk vaccine was licensed in 1955 and began to be used on a mass scale.
Interestingly, DDT fumigation in the US had reached its peak in 1951. In 1952, the fumigations were subsiding. In 1953, polio cases were also subsiding at about the same rate. By 1953, the number of polio cases had dropped by nearly 40%.9After 1954, even though DDT was still produced in the U.S., the distribution of the chemical shifted to developing countries.9Large quantities of DDT began to be bought by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the United Nations (UN) and exported.10
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), “DDT exports increased from 12 percent of the total production in 1950 to 67 percent in 1969.”10
During the 30 years before DDT was banned in the U.S. in 1972, a total of approximately 1.35 billion pounds of the chemical was sprayed throughout the country10… based on a false theory that mosquitoes carried a germ that spread polio, and under the false assumption that DDT was completely harmless to humans—so much so that one of the popular advertising slogans of the 1940s and 1950s was, “DDT Is Good For Me-e-e!”
Today, as of 2014, the EPA view of DDT is negative:
Probable human carcinogen Damages the liver Temporarily damages the nervous system Reduces reproductive success Can cause liver cancer Damages reproductive system
Potential Sources to our Environment:
DDT in soil can be absorbed by some growing plants and by the animals or people who eat those plants DDT in water is absorbed by fish and shellfish in those waterways Atmospheric deposition Soil and sediment runoff Improper use and disposal
DDT is “persistent”, i.e., it does not degrade easily. It accumulates in the environment as a waxy chlorine compound.
Though negative, the EPA circumvents polio symptoms. Its phrase “temporarily” is obvious BS, because the studies by Daniel Dresden at http://www.harvoa.org/polio/overview.htm clearly find paralysis and death when DDT is ingested after being emulsified in milk. Other studies in 1951: Calves were found brain damaged and paralyzed when their mothers (cows) ate grass treated with DDT. Historically: DDT was mandated on dairy farms prior to the great polio epidemic apex, and banned from dairy farms after the apex.
(1) Low blood glucose can be caused by intense exercise, and it is well-accepted that this increases the risk of paralysis when there is active infection. “Dr. Levinson found that monkeys forced to swim to the point of exhaustion in cold water developed more severe paralysis than did either those that remained in cages or those that were immersed in water at body temperature and protected from exercise and chilling.” Shades of Franklin D. Roosevelt.
(2) Hypoglycemia following a bolus of starch or sugar would also increase the risk. Sandler did experiments with rabbits, infecting them with polio and then giving them insulin to cause low blood glucose, and this increased the risk of paralysis: “The next step was to lower the blood sugar of the rabbit to subnormal values with insulin injections, and then inoculate the rabbit with polio virus. This was done and it was found that the rabbits became infected and developed the disease.”
What Sandler didn’t know at the time is that cane sugar can be contaminated with deoxysugars, and that deoxysugars cause effective hypoglycemia. With the deoxysugar deoxyglucose, for example, cells preferentially take up deoxyglucose, but can’t use it for energy — so cane sugar contaminated with enough deoxyglucose would increase the risk of paralysis from polio infections. (This idea comes from van Meer’s paper, http://www.vaccinationcouncil.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/diet-and-polio-Van-Meer-science.pdf.) The paper “THE EFFECT OF 2-DEOXY-D-GLUCOSE INFUSIONS ON LIPID AND CARBOHYDRATE METABOLISM IN MAN” says “In the presenceof 2-DG [the deoxysugar deoxyglucose], although the measured plasma level of glucose is high, if cellular utilization of glucose cannot occur the organism can be considered to be functionally hypoglycemic.”
van Meer also notes that DDT affects blood sugar, and that this effect could cause increased risk of polio with concurrent DDT exposure. I haven’t been able to find definitive evidence that DDT triggers hypoglycemia or effective hypoglycemia, but this paper in mice is suggestive: http://thirdworld.nl/the-inhibitoty-effect-of-ddt-on-insulin-secretion-in-mice It says “In fact, a slight hypoglycemia was observed at both the 5- and ?-hr intervals. Interestingly, at these time periods the DDT-treated mice were exhibiting marked tremors.” So they found some hypoglycemia, and tremors can be a symptom of hypoglycemia (although they can have other causes). So it is certainly plausible that DDT causes increased polio paralysis due to hypoglycemic effects.
The funny thing is that Sandler didn’t know about deoxysugar causing effective hypoglycemia, and van Meer didn’t know about Sandler’s work showing that hypoglycemia increases polio paralysis risk, but they both could see a relationship between paralysis risk and blood sugar. Sandler thought the risk was from hypoglycemia in response to a bolus does (which does happen in some people), but actually deoxyglucose contamination is a more likely trigger. van Meer thought increased risk was due to high blood glucose, because that’s what deoxysugars trigger — when cells have effective hypoglycemia, there is a counter-regulatory response to raise blood glucose to try to resolve the apparent low blood-glucose state.