Polio Hysteria, 1953

From Newsweek. 42:101 (September 2, 1953). 76

      It looked as if this year's infantile paralysis epidemic in the United States would be less severe than last year's--with 15,978 cases reported to date compared with 19, 830 for the same period in 1952. But where polio was breaking out, parents' worry had not diminished. And in some mothers' and fathers' minds, scarce gamma globulin seemed the only hope against disease.

      Last week in New York City, where the 276-case total ran well behind last year's nonepidemic 364, parents' fear and gamma globulin's scarcity came into sharp and frightening conflict--only to be compounded by apparently softhearted officials there.

      When parents from Donald Court, a summer bungalow colony in the Borough of Queens, heard that a neighborhood mother had just been taken to the hospital with polio, they gathered to talk about the possibility of their children getting the virus. Some of the 40 men and women had helped care for the stricken mother, and although they knew that distribution of GG was strictly limited, they decided that their children deserved to be inoculated. Their worry soon became panic.

No Serum: When they went to the Queens General Hospital on Tuesday they were unable to get the serum. The parents' excitement carried them from the hospital to City Hall. Rebuffed there, they marched over to the Department of Health. They got the same answer--no serum. But to help subdue the now-hysterical parents, Health Commissioner Dr. John F. Mahoney called a special meeting of the Board of Health, and then returned to face the parents. Mahoney told them, "as much as I would like to give it to you," previous strict orders controlling the distribution of GG had been reaffirmed--only persons under 30 years and pregnant women who had been in intimate household contact with a victim over a 24 hour period were eligible to receive the shots. Their children could not get the serum. "This has been the basic policy in distribution of gamma globulin and it must remain unchanged."

      But if this seemed reasonable to the city and state Health Departments, to the Office of Defense Mobilization. . . and to the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, it didn't satisfy the parents.

      One tearful woman asked: "Who's going to take the responsibility if more cases break out?" A leader of the group banging his fist on a convenient city-owned table appealed: "If the Lord is listening, I know I'm fighting a right cause. We must get gamma globulin for our children. Search your soul and find a way to help this little group."

      Bolstered by wide-swinging newspaper publicity, fifteen of the "little group" settled down to spend Tuesday night in the health board's offices. While the health officers went home to search their souls, men and women in their offices played cards, read newspapers, talked, sewed, and dozed in hard-backed chairs. A policeman remained on duty in an adjoining room, under orders from sympathetic higher-ups to make no effort to remove the squatters. By the time officials returned to work on Wednesday morning they found that the fifteen who had spent the night had been reinforced by the early arrival of some twenty more men, women, and children.

      Meanwhile, the polio foundation's medical director, Dr. Hart E. Van Riper, issued a careful statement urging common sense: "Parents should not be panicked. The use of gamma globulin is no sure protection, at best, and special attention to precautions recommended by health authorities could do as much, if not more. . ."

      That GG is the only hope in preventing polio, said Dr. Van Riper, "is very far from the fact."

      But back at the city health offices, at lunchtime on Wednesday, Dr. Mahoney suddenly made the startling announcement to the Queens parents that their request had been granted. They could have the GG. Many of the now-cheering group embraced the beleaguered commissioner, and others-men and women-wept openly. After a 27 hour siege, the victorious parents now could line up to receive enough of the precious blood fraction to take back to their physicians for the inoculation of 80 children.

Pity and Expediency: What was behind the unexpected reversal of the board's previous firm stand? "We have received reasonable assurance" from the ODM and the state Health Department that the city's supplies will be replenished if the request is granted, Dr. Mahoney told the group. Apparently, city officials had decided to give out enough GG for the Donald Court children partly out of pity for their desparate parents and partly in an expedient effort to get rid of them.

      And, as wiser men shook their head, a fresh group from Brooklyn stormed the health offices and set up picket lines in front of the department's building. . . . They had come to get enough serum for more than 400 children who had attended a day camp where three cases had been reported during three recent weeks.

      The news was spreading. And it was a safe bet that health officers all over the country were going to wish that New York had stuck to the regulations.

Houghton Mifflin Company