6. After — The Persistence of Polio.
To summarize our theory: Polio is a virus, contagious like all viruses, and generally a harmless enterovirus. When it is introduced into the human body, it has the capacity to enter the nervous system when nerves are damaged. Damage can occur many ways: mechanically through needle puncture or surgery, or, we propose, biochemically via pesticidal or other toxic exposure. Once the virus enters the nervous system, it becomes dangerous in a way nature never allowed before. It spreads through the nervous system via “retrograde axonal transport.” The resulting damage can lead to paralysis or death.
Two regions of the world continue to experience polio outbreaks, despite hopes the virus would be eradicated by 2000. This persistence has surprised and confused the experts.
“The eradication campaign has been stalled from about 2002 to 2007 … Why is it so difficult to complete the global eradication of wild poliovirus?” asked Neal Nathanson of the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine in a 2008 medical review, “The Pathogenesis of Poliomyelitis: What We Don’t Know.”[xlvi] (What we don’t know turns out to be a lot – the paper runs to 50 pages.)
“Currently, there are two epicenters that have resisted virus elimination, one in South Asia (Afghanistan, Pakistan, northern India) and one in West Africa (centered in Nigeria). What explains the persistence of wild polioviruses in these two foci?”
Nathanson cites three possibilities: those are warm climates, so poliovirus doesn’t go dormant in the winter as it theoretically did in other countries; the prevalence of other enteroviruses means that the live-virus polio vaccine is not as effective because the other viruses interfere with it; and poor public health infrastructure couple with fears about vaccination made the achievement of “herd immunity” harder than expected.
If one considers the toxin idea, however, another explanation jumps out, especially in South Asia. Erase national borders for a moment. While outbreaks are small and have waxed and waned over the past decade, the primary sites have been directly south of the Himalayan range in a smiley-face arc that runs west from Nepal and Bangladesh, through the Northern India districts of West Bengal, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, into Pakistan and Afghanistan.
This also happens to be the area with the worst mass poisoning from arsenic in human history. This is not ancient history – it didn’t even begin until the 1980s. It is a story of the single-minded war against microbes gone badly wrong. What happened is beautifully outlined in anAmerican Scientist article, “No one checked: Natural Arsenic in Wells.”[xlvii]
“The wells that now supply the people’s drinking water are sealed from bacterial contamination; their tight concrete tubes reach down 60 feet or more, past surface contamination,” write Phillip and Phylis Morrison. “The big investment in concrete wells, originally made by UNICEF and the World Bank, has beaten back diarrheal diseases, making a real contribution to the vigor and quality of life of the people here.”
But what no one checked was the possibility of another kind of contamination: the wells tapped into the deeper water table and pulled up arsenic that had been swept down the Himalayan watershed by the Ganges and Indus Rivers, both of which drain both slopes of the mighty range.
And that proved to be a catastrophic failure. “A new calamity as astonishing as it is threatening confronts the country people of the Bengal Basin,” the Morrisons write – a calamity that has continued to spread through India and westward. “The drinking water, though sealed from infection, can hold a chronic dose of invisible, tasteless, odor-free dissolved arsenic. … That trace presence is a public poison.”
In Bangladesh alone, the World Health Organization calls arsenic contamination of drinking water “the largest mass poisoning of a population in history” (an eerie echo of Biskind calling DDT use “the most intensive campaign of mass poisoning in human history”). In focusing solely on microbes, in failing understand the ecology they were tapping into, public health experts failed in their due diligence – “no one checked,” and so they simply missed the risk from the toxin. In a deep and disturbing irony, we believe that this arsenic exposure – born of a sincere but disastrously conceived effort to protect people from dangerous microbes — has also led to the persistence of poliomyelitis.