Jonas Salk and the Conquest of Polio
by Jeffrey Kluger
I never expected a scientific book about medical breakthroughs to be so compelling, even suspenseful, but Splendid Solution is. Then again, I never really realized how terrifying the polio epidemics were until I read Kluger's book. The numbers of children who fell ill, became paralyzed or died from polio between 1916 and 1952 is staggering, and it rose every year. Jonas Salk, a scientist who developed the first effective flu vaccine, made it his life's work to create a polio vaccine and halt the spread of this devastating disease. This book covers ever aspect of the fight against polio- Salk's background, training, research and family life. The rivalry between scientists, involvement of the media, the responses of parents, quack doctors, the March of Dimes, Roosevelt, etc. Near the end, the entanglements of politics and scientific disagreements was slowing me down, but I was anxious enough to read the resolutions that I kept going. The descriptions of how vaccines are actually made, and the problems of testing their safety and manufacturing them in mass quantities, were most interesting.
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Other things surprised me- like the fact that after going through monkey trials, the first tests of vaccines were done on mentally handicapped children (who, it was felt, would have no other useful contribution to society) and crippled children who had already been struck by polio. This when people were terrified that the vaccine could cause adverse reactions, severe allergies, or give them polio. Another thing that surprised me was to learn of the huge rift between scientists over the types of vaccines being developed. Salk strove to create the safest vaccine, with polio virus that had been killed. Others argued that a vaccine made from live, disabled virus was more effective, creating a stronger response in the body's immune system. When Salk's vaccine proved successful, it was used for seven years before the other camp pushed their live vaccine enough to get it used instead. After the epidemics were over, wild polio virus kept coming around, still afflicting thousands of people- and the strains of wild virus could be traced back to the live vaccines (according to what I've read). I wonder if only Salk's vaccine had been used, would polio be totally eradicated today? I really expected this book to be drier reading, but it's quite fluid and, apart from the politicking which bored me, very interesting. If you're curious at all about polio, or what scientists go through to make vaccines, I recommend it.
This is the last book I read for the Non-Fiction Five challenge.
Rating: 3/5 373 pages, 2004
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The Voracious Reader