I’ve always had this powerful belief that our design was perfect, that nature operates in harmony, that when something goes awry it is often due to our own man made tinkering. Polio is a great example. It was really not heard of much until the 20th century, a bug that pretty much existed somewhat in isolation for centuries. So what suddenly triggered a few major, and tragic, polio epidemics in America?
Basic sanitation. Seriously.
We started developing water systems, sewer systems, and good hygiene. It wasn’t well known at the time, but very young children inherited some immunity from their mothers and so when they contracted polio it generally just presented as a mild illness they soon recovered from that left them with a lifetime of immunity. As we began to practice basic sanitation, children no longer encountered the virus until a few years later in life when they did not have as many maternal anti-bodies or immune systems capable of fighting polio as well as infants and younger children had.
We broke our own well established herd immunity to polio by creating basic sanitation systems. True story.
Polio outbreaks in the US, prior to 1955 when we developed a vaccine, really were a man made environmental disaster, perhaps quite unintentional, but one of many unintended consequences of our attempts to prevent other diseases and health issues, like dysentery, Cholera, Typhoid. Polio survived quietly as an endemic pathogen for centuries, afflicting a few people here and there in history, but basically kept restrained by the quiet immune systems of babies that served to create a harmony of herd immunity for the rest of us, and a lifetime of protection for them.
There are so many of these kind of immunological dances going on unseen, right beneath our noses that we simply do not fully understand. There are viruses that cause cancers but there are also immunities to viruses that can prevent some cancers. Viruses often serve a vital and necessary purpose in the human story and they aren’t all bad, they aren’t all out to get us. I wish we understood these truths better and were less ruled by fear and hysteria.
In response to Polio we went and sprayed our streets with tons of DDT, knowing it didn’t kill Polio, but not really knowing what else to do.