Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Book Review: Polio - An American Story

Pulitzer winning book depicts the inner workings of Public Health

Within the first few weeks at Hopkins multiple lecturers have defined Public Health. Some used online dictionaries, others quoted names not yet familiar to me, and still more drew up definitions from international organizations. Whenever the slide with the bold white letters and question mark would appear, my mind would drift to our summer orientation book - Polio: An American Story.

Public Health is perhaps a field more difficult to define than others. From the molecular level of cancer mechanisms or chemical toxins to macro concepts of land degradation, sustainable development, and alternative energy, there are varying areas of concern which draw upon the medical, legal, engineering, and humanitarian aid fields (just to name a few). The picture is rather broad, but Hopkins did a service to itself by choosing David Oshinsky's Pulitzer Prize winner.

Oshinsky's book elaborately brings a reader into the moment through rich story telling while not sacrificing the proverbial meat and potatoes. He chronicles the development of the polio vaccine with all the theory and understanding of how vaccines work, the ethics of trails, and the stepping stone discoveries that produce a successful vaccine. However, he brings the story to life by focusing on the pushes, the pulls, the rivalry, the pressure, and the pieces of the puzzle that often go unnoticed.

For instance, he brilliantly captures the campaign that mobilized a nation. The first half of the book is a "how to" for creating a movement. It starts with the personal story of Franklin D Roosevelt, a victim of polio, and his creation of the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (Polio). The foundation had two unique factors that played mighty roles - a sitting US president as its figure head and Basil O'Connor, the visionary put in charge. O'Connor took the newly created and still young public relations and advertising fields and brought on personnel to brand and develop campaigns. Before he knew it the Foundation became a Juggernaut.

Before President Obama's heralded fund raising machine, the foundation revolutionized the concept and approach to soliciting donations. Instead of focusing attention on large sums from the wealthiest few, they shifted for the first time ever on small donations from the many. They believed it had potential to generate more funds, a deeper connection, and a broader movement. With concerted effort at "relentless optimism", the foundation made millions around the country believe they could play a role in the vaccination against a virus that plagued innocent children and kept parents in fear of summer months.

With the help of the President, the foundation was the first organization to use celebrity power to spread the word and solicit donations. For instance, Eddie Cantor, the highest paid actor/comedian of the time, is credited with coining the phrase "March of Dimes", the eventual name the Foundation would take. Through radio campaigns, people were encouraged to mail a dime right to president Roosevelt. The inaugural event, still in the midst of the Great Depression, brought in 2,680,000 dimes alone; a whooping success. With each dime mailed in there was a psychology of "Yes We Can!"

Two other interesting strategies were the creation of a "poster child" and the polio blankets. In 1946, six year old Donald Anderson was hand selected to be the face of the polio campaign. His pictures and interviews become a rally cry for donations and increased support over night. It was controversial but a successful tool. It also organized volunteer groups to sew over sized Polio blankets for victims and their families. These blankets are thought to be the "forerunner to AIDS quilts".

Polio: An American Story
pays heed to the traditional definition of public health; "the science of preventing disease, promoting health, and prolonging life with emphasis on populations rather than individuals". However, Oshinsky brings to light the wide ranging factors that affect the process and application. Science, politics, economics, culture, communications, and technology are but some of the players touched upon in this easy to read page turner. I recommend the book and I look forward to Oshinsky's upcoming visit in mid-August.


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