My workweek ended on a bright note today, as I happened upon one of the brightest pieces of news imaginable: the world is on the brink of eradicating polio, forever. A disease that for generations has killed or crippled countless among us – condemning some to decades in an iron lung – may soon go the way of smallpox: formerly a scourge of humanity, now the mere stuff of history books and medical texts. As someone whose own mother still lives a full four decades later with the (relatively minor) sequelae of a case contracted in early adulthood, my joy could not be greater.
The fact that 2018 may well see the last recorded cases of polio is a testament to human ingenuity and determination. Developing the vaccine was only the first step on this very long road: vaccination had to become universal not only in the developed world, but everywhere. No corner of the globe, no matter how remote, how poor or how treacherous, could remain beyond the reach of the vaccination teams. In their way stood everything from inhospitable terrain, to war zones, to the mendacity of our own governments. That final obstacle was a particularly cruel one: thanks to the use of vaccination as a tool to find Osama bin Laden, the teams found themselves the subject of a merciless campaign of assassination. The wickedness of the CIA’s ruse is surpassed only by the heroism of the medical personnel, whose resolve not even the Taliban could break.
Given the eagerness of many anti-vaxxers to describe themselves as “libertarian” – when “crackpot” would be more apt – the delightful piece linked to above saved its most delicious tidbit for last.
A common (and profoundly stupid) claim among anti-vaxxers is that vaccines have nothing to do with the 20th century’s vertiginous drop in infection rates and deaths from virus-borne illnesses. Instead, it is “better nutrition and hygiene” that are responsible, with the vaccines having either no effect or, as is more typically asserted, being poison under medical cover. Ever since I first came across this argument, while I knew it to be poppycock I did agree that better eating habits and sanitation had to have played some part, however small, in combating these diseases.
Imagine, then, my surprise when I read an expert quoted in the article explaining that “polio is actually a disease of better hygiene.” How? As the piece describes it, “polio is known as a fecal-oral route disease.” In other words, it’s through contact with human excrement that the disease spreads. And, as it turns out, most cases are relatively benign, meaning that most adults who live in filth contract it without serious consequences, following which they gain lifelong immunity. What’s more, a pregnant women will transmit that immunity to her fetus. As a result, polio only became the dread disease that we now know as people became cleaner and, as a result, ceased to contract it as a matter of course – meaning that the only thing that could have stopped it was an effective vaccine. Then again, now that I know that hand washing has such a horrifying downside, I’ll never look at a bar of soap quite the same way again.