Film reveals Pittsburgh's polio stories

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When Dr. Sidney N. Busis worked 18-hour days with young polio patients in iron lungs, his wife says her greatest fear was that he might expose his children to the crippling disease when he came home and hugged them each night.

Martha Hunter, as a young polio pioneer, remembers being handed a Steiff bear when she lined up for the shot. "The needle was long and very thick looking and basically fearsome, which is why I spent a lot of time squeezing the bear ...."

Jody Zogran, a nurse for iron lung patients at the former Municipal Hospital in Oakland, still remembers little 5-year-old Danny, one of her favorite patients. One day she came on duty, looked on the clipboard and didn't see his name. "I said to someone, 'Why don't I have Danny today?' It was the loudest silence I had ever heard in my life," she recalls. "I ran down to his respirator and it was empty."

Still trying to end
polio worldwide

The documentary "The Shot Felt 'Round the World" ends with a plea for global eradication of polio.

The World Health Organization and Rotary International had set goals for that to occur, first in 2000, and then in 2005.

Cultural conflicts, funding gaps and other problems have led to setback after setback, but world health officials are optimistic that progress is being made.

So far this year, 56 total cases have been diagnosed through April 6. That compares with 231 diagnosed during the same time period last year. Of particular note, Nigeria has had just one case diagnosed this year, compared with 90 during the same period in 2009. A halt in the immunization program in Nigeria's northern Muslim region for 11 months in 2003-04 due to cultural conflicts caused cases to spread to many countries that had long been free of the disease, as well as an uptick in cases in Africa's most populated country.

The disease remains endemic (meaning polio has never been interrupted) in four countries -- Pakistan, Afghanistan, India and Nigeria. In the latest report ending April 6, no wild polio virus cases have been reported in India for the third successive week, or in Nigeria for the ninth successive week.

The Global Polio Eradication Initiative now aims its goal for the end of all transmission of wild polio virus at December 2012.

These reflections have been captured in a new 66-minute documentary, "The Shot Felt 'Round the World," that has its world premiere tonight at an invitation-only screening in Oakland. It's timed with this week's 55th anniversary of the announcement on April 12, 1955, that Dr. Jonas Salk's polio vaccine was "safe, effective and potent."

The documentary had its beginnings five years ago when the hundreds of people who assembled in Pittsburgh to mark the 50th anniversary of the historic announcement recounted the harrowing times.

"Every one of these stories was more amazing than the last," said Carl Kurlander, the Hollywood screenwriter and producer who at the time of the 50th anniversary was a University of Pittsburgh visiting professor supervising a group of film students documenting the occasion.

The 50-year-old Squirrel Hill native was so inspired that he encouraged his students to make a 10-minute trailer about how the vaccine was developed. It drew the interest of director Tjardus Greidanus, producer Laura Davis and others and has been turned into a documentary that the Pitt professor said provides a fresh perspective on the era.

Also tonight, Dr. Salk's sons, Drs. Peter and Jonathan Salk, will announce an innovative student film competition, "Taking a Shot at Changing the World," that will give students from around the globe a chance to make their own short videos about polio and vaccines.

The aim of the contest, for students in elementary through high school, is to "virally" share their impressions raising awareness about the importance of vaccines around the world.

The winning video will be posted on the website of The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which has committed $10 billion to vaccine development over the next decade. Information on the contest is at www.shotsthatchangetheworld.com.

The contest is being run by the nonprofit Steeltown Entertainment Project, which, in partnership with WQED Pittsburgh, 1905 Productions and the University of Pittsburgh, also put together the polio documentary. Steeltown Entertainment was co-founded by Mr. Kurlander, who wrote "St. Elmo's Fire" and produced "My Tale of Two Cities."

This is not the first movie on the subject. Last year, PBS presented "The Polio Crusade," a similar documentary based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning book "Polio: An American Story" by David Oshinsky.

Mr. Kurlander said his movie focuses much more on the Pittsburgh story. "No one had really talked to the people here in Pittsburgh as much as we did," he said. "Many had never been on camera before." It is narrated by polio researchers, doctors, nurses, lab techs, patients, historians and the polio pioneers who offered up their arms for the untested vaccine.

Peter and Jonathan Salk also provided their reflections. "The Salk family became increasingly interested because their father had been misperceived," Mr. Kurlander said, referring to resentment that the virologist didn't credit his research team for their contribution when the vaccine's success was announced. "Jonas Salk was a lab rat. He was thrown into the limelight."

While his documentary does not yet have a distributor, Mr. Kurlander hopes the video contest and the movie will go hand-in-hand in raising awareness as well as an appreciation for the humanitarian spirit that went into creating the Salk vaccine.

The mission in the 1950s to find a successful vaccine couldn't have been more urgent. The year before Dr. Salk's announcement, 38,000 new cases of poliomyelitis were reported -- the third highest annual total -- mainly infecting children younger than 5. Researchers in Dr. Salk's lab at Municipal Hospital -- now Pitt's Salk Hall -- were working 16-hour days, seven days a week to find a safe and effective vaccine with the killed polio virus.

"We were on a run that was unbelievable and couldn't be duplicated today," Julius Younger, 89, the microbiologist who is the last surviving member of the core research team, says in the movie. "We couldn't have worked the way we did. The lab would not have passed inspection."

Once the human trials were launched, families were desperate to get their children protected.

"People were lining up their kids for a vaccine that no one could assure them was safe and no one could assure them would work," Mr. Oshinsky, the polio author and historian, says in the movie.

"But they had tremendous faith in Jonas Salk and his team, they had tremendous faith in his humanity and tremendous faith in his scientific ability. It was not only a national crusade but a humanitarian crusade, and generations of kids after this are going to benefit."

Paul Offit, director of the Vaccine Education Center at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, who also narrates part of the story, said in an interview Monday that he has seen a changing attitude toward vaccines. In 55 years, the nation has given rise to an anti-vaccine movement fueled by distrust among some parents who blame inoculations for developmental problems in their children.

Dr. Offit co-invented the rotavirus vaccine that was licensed in 2006, which saves the lives of 2,000 young children a day from the lethal intestinal disease. Yet he's also been assailed by those who object to his staunch support of vaccines. He said he doubts we'll ever recapture the faith in public health and vaccines that existed during Dr. Salk's time.

Polio was a very emotional disease for this country, he said. "There was a tremendous sense of shared tragedy. We all had to do something. The only way to appreciate the vaccine is to appreciate the damage it can prevent."

Because few people have seen measles or polio -- the Western Hemisphere was declared free of polio in 1991 -- there's not an understanding of what can happen. Thousands of people cannot be vaccinated against certain diseases because of cancer conditions or other health issues. Vaccination not only can help those getting the shot, but also those who can't be protected, he said.

People who are refusing to vaccinate their children "are playing a dangerous game here," Dr. Offit said. "If this continues you'll see polio again in this country."

Mr. Kurlander said he was especially moved by Jonathan Salk's quote at the end of the movie about the collective spirit that produced the vaccine:

"I think my dad asked himself every day for the rest of his life, why can't this happen about other things? Why can't this happen about poverty? Why can't this happen about public health?"




Tonight's movie screening is by invitation only at the Twentieth Century Club in Oakland. It is hosted by University of Pittsburgh Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg and Vice Chancellor Robert Hill.


Virginia Linn: vlinn@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1662.


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