The fever struck in August. Nineteen-year-old Mai later wrote:
“Each day added new names to the list of the sick and the dead … As we walked home [one] evening, we passed a rooming house where there were fever cases. On the ground beneath some of the windows lay bloody rags, and an awful stench pervaded the air. We heard groans from the sick and felt sure they were alone. No one would venture to nurse fever patients. Even we passed by hurriedly and did not take that route again.”
Mai tended her stricken landlady, and having been exposed to her bleeding gums and black vomit, Mai became infected.
“Suddenly I began feeling so strange! My legs seemed to be drawing up into my spine. Such agonizing pains I did not know a human could bear.” She lay immobile for days. “Our house was situated on the road to the cemetery. All day and through the night I heard the clip-flop of the horses’ hoofs as they carried out the dead…I knew another soul had lost the fight. I learned later that five women in our block had died of the fever at this time.”
Mai wrote not from the Developing World, but from America: Jackson, Mississippi, 1899, during just one of the many yearly yellow fever epidemics that ravaged the South. A vaccine was not discovered until 1934, nor was Salk’s life-saver on the horizon. During summer vacations with Mai–my grandmother–from the late 1940s to mid-1950s, we kids were forbidden to swim for fear of catching polio.
In 1953, Salk announced his discovery and clinical testing began in 1954. In 1953 there were 58,000 new polio cases, and 3,000-plus deaths. Today the poliovirus has been eradicated in the U.S. for 30 years.
It is with growing unease that I read of parents today refusing to vaccinate their children against diseases that once killed hundreds of thousands: measles, whooping cough, meningitis, flu. Diseases waiting to make their comeback as holes in our safety nets are widened.
As I type this piece, September 30, the breaking news is that the first case of diagnosed Ebola in the United States has been confirmed. There is no vaccine, but there are for many preventable illnesses. Use them.