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JACK WEATHERLY: Summertime and fears from not so long ago



The little girl whose blue veins shone through her lovely ivory skin was dead.

She could have been my first girlfriend. I had a crush on her when I was seven or eight.

It was on one of those languorous summer days when the news was spread rapidly through our Memphis neighborhood by children— fleet little messengers of sorrow.

Joan is dead. Joan is dead.

I didn’t understand. None of the kids did. Children don’t die. The parents could hardly take it in.

It was polio.

That scourge has long been eradicated in the United States, thanks to the Salk vaccine. This year is the  60th anniversary of the beginning of the great inoculation of the nation, in case you missed the date.

That was long ago and in a much different country.

Plagues in this country are seemingly of a different time. Yet it hasn’t been that long ago that AIDS was an automatic death sentence.

Recently, there has been a widespread outbreak of another preventable disease, measles.

The reason for the outbreak was the unfounded fear that measles shots could cause autism and the fact  that 48 states allow persons to excuse themselves from otherwise mandatory vaccinations for religious or personal reasons —not medical.

Mississippi, which is otherwise not in the forefront of public health, does not. It leads the nation with a vaccination rate of 99.7 percent for measles, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. West Virginia is second with a 96 percent rate.

What brought this epidemiological lesson and childhood trauma to my mind?

Simply because there is a sign at the drive-through window of the Walgreen’s where I get my prescriptions filled.

Among the vaccinations listed are those for measles, pneumonia, shingles, hepatitis and others —as well as, yes, polio, typhoid and yellow fever.

Yellow fever?

Ever see “Jezebel” starring Bette Davis? Called “yellow Jack” in the 1938 movie, it ravaged New Orleans and took the love of her life.

Mississippi has not been unscathed. Yellow fever claimed 367 lives in Grenada in 1878, when the town had 2,000 residents.

Farther north, Memphis was devastated by it six times between 1828 and 1879. It sickened 17,000 and killed 5,000 in the last year of that period.

It has long since been eradicated in this country.

I do not know where little Joan contracted polio, a waterborne disease. Most likely, it was in a swimming place.  There was no public swimming pool in our part of town, so a trip to a pool was an excursion

Who knows, it could have been at Maywood, an immensely popular swimming pool with a brilliant white sand bottom and beach imported from Destin, Fla., and fed by clear spring water.

Opened in 1931 just across the Tennessee line in Olive Branch, Maywood was a day-trip resort for many Memphians who didn’t want to go to the Gulf Coast to escape the oppressive heat.

Tennessee Williams, the famed playwright and a native of Columbus, lived in Memphis for a while in his young adulthood. He mentioned in a letter he wrote his mother in 1935 the “fine artesian swimming pool in Maywood, Mississippi.” It closed in 2003.

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, 35,000 people a year in the United States were crippled each year from poliomyelitis, according to the CDC.

“It was one of the most feared diseases in the United States,” the CDC wrote. “Parents were frightened to let their children go outside, especially in the summer, when the virus seemed to peak.”

I remember that fear. And the very real fear of a lifetime in an “iron lung” if you didn’t die.

President Franklin Roosevelt, a victim of polio in his young adulthood, founded in 1938 what was to become the “March of Dimes” campaign to raise money to eradicate the disease.

Seventeen years later, the nation began a campaign that eliminated it in the United States by 1979.

Public swimming pools traditionally open on Memorial Day, which is, of course, set aside to honor those who gave their lives to keep our country free.

But maybe it also an appropriate time to remember those, such as little Joan, who lost theirs because of what are now preventable diseases.

The United States is virtually, if not completely, free of those illnesses. Not so across the world.

And so, like national freedom, prevention of disease requires eternal vigilance.

» Contact Mississippi Business Journal staff writer Jack Weatherly at jack.weatherly@msbusiness.com or (601) 364-1015.


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