In the mid-1980s, we as Americans believed we’d beaten polio. That was mostly true in the western hemisphere but on the other side of the world it was another story. Some 1,000 children a day or 350,000 each year were contracting this crippling disease while at the same time many young people here weren’t even aware of the term “iron lung” or what the disease “polio” had meant to kids in the 1950s.
But Rotary International believed that with the oral vaccine as available and cheap (50 cents) as it was, Rotarians ought to immunize every child in the world and rid the planet of polio once and for all. They started and despite the fact (or perhaps because of the fact) that the needed time and cost were greatly underestimated, they kept pushing and now stand on the brink of success thanks to “Polio Plus” efforts.
But what would polio have meant to you, as an individual, if you’d been one of the 30,000 American children annually to contract this disease during its peak years before the Salk and Sabine vaccines were introduced? Freda Billings, a polio survivor and a Bogalusa friend of Rotarian Kiah Beville told her story to the Rotary Club of Winnfield on August 12.
(In the decade from 1949 through 1958, some 277,000 Americans, mostly children, contracted paralytic polio. There were 16,000 polio deaths reported).
Freda Billings walks with a limp and a smile. She’s certainly not “handicapped” and only recently heard the term “polio survivor.” She attributes much of her can-do attitude to her parents who encouraged her to do anything she wanted, including playing tag on the school playground with the full realization that with her steel braces, she’d most often be “it.”
“I don’t think about having polio until someone asks. I wore braces but felt fortunate when I’d see other children with polio when we’d go to the health unit. Some had crutches, some were in wheelchairs and a few were in an iron lung.” Born in July 1951, Freda contracted the poliomyelitis virus at age 3 months.
It was at that health unit that Freda was cared for by Dr. Mary Sherman, a world-renown orthopedic surgeon who volunteered time at the clinic to assist polio children. When she was 12, Freda underwent successful surgery by “Dr. Mary” who inserted a steel staple that allowed the child to lift her right foot and leave behind her braces. “She gave me the chance to wear real shoes.”
A second surgery was planned one year later but Dr. Sherman was brutally murdered shortly before the scheduled date. That crime was never solved. A book brought by the speaker, “Dr. Mary’s Monkey,” suggests that the doctor whose primary area of study was cancer was researching the charge that millions of the early oral vaccines were tainted with a second virus. .
Freda concluded, “Polio never defined me and for that I am thankful. I congratulate Rotary for its 35 years of fighting polio. Don’t stop now. Keep after it. One concern I have is all the young mothers who won’t let their children be vaccinated. They are setting us up for an upswing in other diseases.”