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According to Forest Maready's "The Moth in the Iron Lung" and several other sites brought to my attention by social media posts, the poliovirus wasn't as virulent as thought. Claims by the book's author include (as summarized by their YouTube video):

  • Everyone used to be immune to poliovirus.
  • Paralysis from the virus didn't start until the 1800s.
  • Diagnosing polio was difficult and therefore misdiagnosed with other diseases such as meningitis.

The authors then attribute the "polio" epidemic to the use of arsenic and DDT Poisoning as shown by this graph:

Polio Incidence and DDT Production in US from 1940-1970

Pesticide Composite: Summary

(Both graphics from: Jim West: "Pesticides and Polio: A Critique of Scientific Literature", February 8, 2003.)

The purpose of this presentation from the author is to show that the polio vaccine wasn't as effective (if not effective at all) as once claimed. Many anti-vaxers are using this as a reason to prove that vaccines aren't actually as effective as claimed.

My question is if there has been any research into the claims that pesticides used during that time caused paralysis that was attributed to the poliovirus. Has there been any research into the lowering of poliovirus diagnoses directly related to the reduction in the use of these harmful substances? Finally, is there strong evidence that the vaccine is directly tied to the reduction in poliovirus diagnoses?

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    Reminder: No pseudo-answers in the comments. No abusive language anywhere on the site.
    – Oddthinking
    Aug 5 at 22:11
  • It seems nobody left a note here that the Q in being discussed on meta. skeptics.meta.stackexchange.com/questions/4764/… In particular @Oddthinking's closing and reopening of the Q were mentioned.
    – Fizz
    Aug 9 at 3:21
180

I'll address your last question first, starting with the mantra of science and statistics:

Correlation doesn't equal causation

There is a common anecdote in my home country about the mayor of a coastal city that commissioned a study to understand factors that relate to the number of drownings. One of the factors that the study showed to be strongly correlated to increase in drownings was the increase in ice cream sales in the beach kiosks. Therefore, the mayor decided to ban ice cream sales in beach kiosks.

Of course it didn't work; ice cream sales correlate to drownings because they share a common cause: the number of people at the beach

That's why for a vaccine (or any new medication to be cleared for use, for that matter), there is a need for clinical trials. They exist to document evidence of a cause-and-effect relationship between receiving the vaccine and not getting the disease.

The Salk trials in the 50s are considered one of the largest medical experiments at the time and were done with what's considered to this day the gold standard of clinical trials - the double control with placebo

One group of children received the polio vaccine, a second group of children received an injection containing only culture media, and the control group didn't receive anything and was only monitored. Note that we're talking hundreds of thousands of children in the vaccine and placebo groups, and millions in the control, so the results cannot be chalked up to coincidence.

If the vaccine was not effective in preventing polio, all three groups would have the same infection rates. This was not the case. The group who received the vaccine had SIGNIFICANTLY lower infection rates than the other two control groups, who either received a placebo shot or no shot at all.

Additionally, the Sabin vaccine was developed and rolled out in the 60s and it is still prevalently used in many countries due to ease of transport and application (it is oral drops) - and the added benefit of flushing out pathogenic strains from the water supply, creating another layer of protection

The person who made this graphic only looked at US data, so another thing to be considered is the polio-free country list with the dates, the large majority of the countries achieved polio-free status far before the worldwide ban on DDT and it also includes countries that still use DDT to this day for malaria vector control

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    Great response! I would like to have some of the data present in this answer. I'm hoping to refer some people to this answer as they bring this up. Aug 5 at 16:09
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    In addition to the figures in your last paragraph, the graph in the question itself refutes the basic claim. If the polio epidemic was driven by DDT production/use, why does the polio epidemic (the rise in rates from 1942-53) lead the corresponding increase in DDT production by 2-3 years? Polio rates had already more than doubled by the time DDT became commercially available in 1945.
    – bta
    Aug 5 at 16:44
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    That last paragraph is the most significant IMO. Correlation does not imply causation, but lack of correlation absolutely does imply lack of causation. Aug 6 at 12:23
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    @DanielR.Collins Indeed. There's a positive correlation between correlation and causation.
    – Eric J.
    Aug 6 at 20:27
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    I think this post is just missing this reference to be perfect : tylervigen.com/spurious-correlations. ;) Aug 6 at 20:56
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Just doing basic data analysis of the charts shows little relevance between DDT and polio.

Polio went up before DDT in most cases, as well as going down before DDT use was reduced, not to mention that polio went down during an increase of DDT use in 1951.

Also, polio was dramatically reduced in the late '50's while DDT in the body fat was still climbing.

There's really only a few places where polio and DDT are similar, but that's definitely not enough to make this sort of claim.

This is even if those charts are accurate, which I highly doubt, since they are on a conspiracy theory site.

Overall, we rate the Weston A. Price Foundation a quackery level pseudoscience source based on the promotion of anti-vaccination propaganda and dangerous alternative nutrition.

Factual Reporting: LOW

Founded in 1999, the Weston A. Price Foundation is a nonprofit organization that promotes alternative health, nutrition, and pseudoscience.

https://mediabiasfactcheck.com/weston-a-price-foundation/

That Weston A. Price Foundation article also says:

Through this intellectually paralyzing atmosphere, Dr. Biskind had the composure to argue what he thought was the most obvious explanation for the polio epidemic: Central nervous system diseases (CNS) such as polio are actually the physiological and symptomatic manifestations of the ongoing government- and industry-sponsored inundation of the world’s populace with central nervous system poisons.

The CDC plainly says polio is a virus, not a poison.

Polio, or poliomyelitis, is a disabling and life-threatening disease caused by the poliovirus.

The virus spreads from person to person and can infect a person’s spinal cord, causing paralysis (can’t move parts of the body).

https://www.cdc.gov/polio/what-is-polio/index.htm

Polio is absolutely a virus, as can be seen through an electron microscope and has RNA, which poisons don't have.

Poliovirus is composed of an RNA genome and a protein capsid. The genome is a single-stranded positive-sense RNA (+ssRNA) genome that is about 7500 nucleotides long.[2] The viral particle is about 30 nm in diameter with icosahedral symmetry. Because of its short genome and its simple composition—only RNA and a nonenveloped icosahedral protein coat that encapsulates it, poliovirus is widely regarded as the simplest significant virus.[3]

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Poliovirus

This can be confirmed many places, including the Mayo Clinic site, which also mentions that the last naturally occurring case of polio in the US was in 1979.

Polio is a contagious viral illness that in its most severe form causes nerve injury leading to paralysis, difficulty breathing and sometimes death.

In the U.S., the last case of naturally occurring polio was in 1979. Today, despite a worldwide effort to wipe out polio, poliovirus continues to affect children and adults in parts of Asia and Africa.

https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/polio/symptoms-causes/syc-20376512

This is well after DDT was banned in 1972.

The United States banned the use of DDT in 1972, but some countries still use the chemical.

https://www.cdc.gov/biomonitoring/DDT_FactSheet.html

Research on vaccine to reduce polio cases

As far as proof of the polio vaccine being shown to reduce the cases of polio, there's a significant repository of research and other information compiled here and here. And the WHO states that since the resolution to eradicate polio in 1988, in India alone the cases of polio have dropped by 99%, and this is still an ongoing fight to get rid of polio. India still uses DDT in limited instances to kill mosquitoes carrying dengue, but going from a 350k cases in 1988 to 160 in 2020 doesn't correlate at all with the use of DDT. If we look at the graph for polio cases in India, we see that the cases dropped dramatically in the 80's and 90's, which is well before DDT was even partially banned in 2008.

Graph: Polio In India

https://ourworldindata.org/polio

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    I think the section starting with "That Weston A. Price Foundation article" and ending with the DDT fact sheet link should be reworked (or possibly removed). Dr. Biskind's argument is that the actual cause is poisons rather than the virus. Neither the CDC or Mayo Clinic sources appear to specifically address how they know it's the virus rather than something else, so they're not really able to refute the claim. I do think there's value in pointing out the claim contradicts more reliable sources, though.
    – Rob Watts
    Aug 7 at 2:33
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    @RobWatts, I'm not sure how you think Dr. Biskind said the deaths attributed to polio were actually from poisons. He literally said he though polio was a poison. I'm not sure why I have to prove that polio is a virus, since this isn't a a medical site, but I've added another linked article to show that polio has RNA, which poisons don't have. Aug 7 at 18:32
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    Aligned with @RobWatts (& as best as I can interpret this Q & its many claims): you talk past the issues raised—& confuse virus with disease. One of the many claims in Q is that the ''diagnosis polio' ≠ 'directly & solely caused by the polio-virus'' (in too many cases/'polioV as 'innocent bystander'? IDK, a clear Q would make things much easier…) or that polio-virus only got that nasty with poisons… I fail to see how any claim or claimant said 'polio virus does not exist'? Also, to me it seems that "vaxxes might have reduced polio cases very well, but "not to the extent as often told"? Aug 7 at 20:36
  • @LangLаngС, the Q is whether DDT was a significant factor in the rise/fall of polio cases. I talked directly about in all of my A. I showed how polio cases went up & down regardless of how much or little DDT was used. Since the Q didn't ask about other poisons, I didn't look at other poisons. Dr. Biskind said polio was a poison and I showed how that's false. Also, when talking about a virus, speaking about it as if it were the disease is pretty universal. And the polio vax did reduce cases, to the point where the polio virus is near extinction. How is that "not to the extent as often told"? Aug 9 at 16:04
  • Not your fault that the Q is as unclear as it is. However, currently it is explicit about arsenic & DDT (while original claim is 'pesticides, such as…'), and not that 'polio' (the virus) 'is a poison', but 'polio' (the disease) 'is mainly caused/compounded by poisons'. I personally don't doubt all merits of polio vax, and part of A is good, but the claims seem to revolve around 'whether vax or not, cases declined' (& vax may have actually helped, or not…) leaving us with a compound argument to dissect for variance resolution: not whether at all, but how much vax contributed to decline. Aug 9 at 18:44

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