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Another Time, Another Virus

As a child of the 1950’s, some of my earliest memories stem from interactions my family experienced within the healthcare system. My brother’s cerebral palsy led to multiple surgeries, sometimes resulting in weeks of rehabilitation at the Orthopedic Hospital in Lincoln. Along with my brother’s struggles, the plight of many of the other children being treated there deeply impacted my parents. Some of those children were there as a result of polio, a viral disease that many of you may still remember. My parents were deathly afraid of polio, and with good reason. The following article published in “The New Yorker” in January of 2015 captures it well:

“Philip Roth’s lovely, short novel “Nemesis,” set in “equatorial Newark,” in wartime, is probably the best portrait of the dread that enveloped American communities confronting polio, an illness that had no cure—a time, as Roth wrote, when parents were urged to call a doctor if their children showed any signs of “headache, sore throat, nausea, stiff neck, joint pain, or fever.” Panic came naturally. And, although polio tended to strike children, Roth’s generation knew that no one was immune. When Franklin D. Roosevelt suffered partial paralysis, in 1921, he was thirty-nine.

So when the Salk vaccine first became available, my parent’s insisted that we get vaccinated as soon as possible. I could feel their sense of urgency, fueled by their personal experience and knowledge of how polio could impact a young life. They were also blessed to live in a time when there was trust in our national leadership and our scientific institutions. To continue from the aforementioned article:

Dwight D. Eisenhower was in the White House in April, 1955, when Jonas E. Salk’s new polio vaccine was pronounced safe, effective, and potent. Eisenhower never doubted it; he never said, “I’m not a scientist, and so …” Rather, he was someone who talked with scientists, understood what they were saying, and supported those who wanted to bring sense and order to a nationwide inoculation program that was greeted with enormous relief, but also, quite naturally, some apprehension. At a press conference that month (Ike met with the press almost every week), he was asked what role the federal government should play.

“I believe very greatly in the power that can be developed by the humanitarian agencies of this country when they work together in cooperation,” the President replied. “And if they have the direction which is to be given them through the Advisory Committee set up in [the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare], I believe that we will get the most rapid possible distribution of this vaccine.”

Sometimes the latest news about the progress of the current pandemic elicits echoes in my mind of the sense of dread my parents experienced when I was a child. But like Ike, who grew up in Kansas and was baptized as a Presbyterian in 1953 while he was a sitting president, I believe in the power of science and our healthcare institutions “when they work together in cooperation.” Thanks to those institutions, polio is no longer a threat throughout most of the world.

I pray that the time is not so far away when we can say the same about COVID-19.


Jerry Kahrs


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