There have been occasional cases of polio (poliomyelitis) throughout human history. The Roman Emperor Claudius suffered from a disease as a child thought to be polio: muscle weakness, severe pain and paralysis. But it wasn’t until the summer of 1910 that it became an epidemic in the modern industrialized world. In fact for the next 40 years the summer was called “Polio season.” The numbers of polio victims were thought to go up during the hot months. A disease that existed for thousands of years mostly dormant was now full-blown and terrorizing Americans come late spring.
So because, as publisher of Skeptic magazine, Dr. Michael Shermer says, we are “pattern-seeking primates,” it was soon deduced that polio was linked to (wait for it) ice cream. Yes, the reason why the disease was rampant in the summer months is because it was then that children ate more ice cream. It was the sugar. In 1940, Dr. Benjamin Sandler published a paper “The production of neuronal injury and necrosis with the virus of poliomyelitis in rabbits during insulin hypoglycemia” in The American Journal of Pathology. Disregarding all the winter holiday intake of sugary treats, from then on out the anti-polio diet was to cut out ice cream.
We now know outbreaks of polio at the beginning of the last century in America and Europe were from the newly utilized flush toilet. According to Dr. John F. Modlin, current chair of the Department of Pediatrics, Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, it was the lack of harmless immunizing infections during infancy due to better sanitation that attributed to the epidemic.
Get that? Not ice cream – flush toilets. May the two never be confused again.
Polio vaccinations were widely introduced in the late 1950s early 1960s and now polio is nearly eradicated in industrialized nations and minimized dramatically in poorer countries.
Now imagine if a celebrity in 1940 had a son with polio and she decided to start a campaign against ice cream because she trusted what Dr. Sandler said. Imagine she believed she was right, so any new evidence or studies refuting her belief were seen through a lens of conspiracy and victimhood. Couple that with getting a national platform on talk shows and news programs to spew her inaccurate garbage on an unsuspecting public – where would that have led us?
It would have taken longer to eradicate polio (meaning more American children suffering) and we’d possibly still look at ice cream with suspicion.
Cut to Marin County, California 2011: The richest county in California (ranking 20th in the entire nation) is ground zero for a whooping cough epidemic. In the last ten years California has allowed parents to “choose” whether or not to immunize their children. This is because in the wake of a 1998 “study” by “Dr.” Andrew Wakefield falsely linking vaccinations to autism there has been widespread panic among well-meaning parents. So many children in privileged first-world homes are not getting immunized. This year six infants have died in California from whooping cough. Out of the 1500 reported cases so far this year in California – the highest rate of infection is in Marin County. It’s the worst epidemic, according to the CDC, the state has seen in 50 years. Doctors all across the state are telling their patients to get the whooping cough vaccination regardless of age. Now high school freshmen are being required to have the inoculation to enter school in the fall.
Wakefield’s work has been debunked entirely, his work has been called, “intentionally misleading” by the British Medical Journal and his medical license has been revoked. And yet because of celebrities like Jenny McCarthy – the myth lives on, and even measles is making a comeback.
Not getting immunizations is treated like a religious rite. We’re afraid to offend those who have faith in not inoculating their kids to allegedly save them from autism. Which means vintage viruses are in again. It means that the public is now at risk for diseases not seen in two generations.
The important lesson here is being able to change your beliefs when faced with new information. That’s science. The first concept of the atom was the “plum pudding model” by J.J. Thomson It turned out to be inaccurate. But the scientists didn’t stop there. Thomson didn’t stop there.
Sometimes we have to be wrong in order to ever be accurate. We did it with ice cream. We can do it with immunizations.
CORRECTION: The original version mistakenly identified “J.J. Abrams” as conceptualizing the plum pudding model of the atom instead of J.J. Thomson. We regret any confusion.