Janice Nichols and her twin brother, Frankie, were in first grade when polio hit their town. In a rented cottage far away from others the Nichols family thought that they were safe from the epidemics that had begun downstate in 1916. As the numbers of polio cases increased families began to relocate but, fearing that New Yorkers could be contaminated, doctors had to inspect each person moving across state lines. “No one outside of the area wanted the kids,” Janice explains.
A few days after polio hit their town 8 kids from their class of 24 had been infected and 3, including Frankie, had passed. On the day that Frankie was buried Janice was admitted to the hospital with temporary paralysis. Soon after being allowed to go home Janice started an intensive regiment of physical therapy. At first Janice was unable to walk but physical therapy helped to retrain her muscles and assist her remaining nerve cells to take over for the cells that had been destroyed. “Most of us have a vivid memory of the first time we take a step,” Janice recalls “because I had private therapy at home I was much luckier than most kids; I didn’t have to go far away, and I didn’t go in just once a week.” Janice describes that she walked like a “little tin soldier” and that her father was determined that she “wouldn’t walk like a polio survivor”.
Janice predicts that she was able to survive polio because it had been detected early and because she received multiple vaccines to protect her the day after her twin brother was diagnosed. Since 1916 the global community has developed vaccines that are safer and more effective. In 1954 Dr. Salk produced a vaccine called IPV and Janice was one of the two million children participating in the trials. “They tried everything but nothing was going to make a dent and nothing remains to make a dent except vaccination,” Janice explains.
Polio has been eradicated in the United States since 1979 and cases around the world have been reduced by 99% since 1988. Polio is currently endemic in only Nigeria, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. The very things that saved Janice’s life- quick detection, medical equipment, and physical therapy- are frequently unavailable in developing countries. “A couple of years ago they had an epidemic in the Republic of the Congo. There was a 40% mortality rate among infected young adults” which was largely because there was “no electricity, few iron lungs, and limited equipment,” Janice explains.
In 2003 Janice received an article about polio in the mail with encouragement from Michelle, her graduate school roommate, to share her polio story. Janice became a life-long advocate for polio eradication and dedicated four years to researching for her book about polio. Since 2007 she has had regular speaking engagements throughout North America. “I start my talk by telling about what happened in my suburb. Then I talk about the disease and the vaccines and what has happened as a result of the vaccine. Next I talk about what will happen to this world if we don’t get rid of this disease in the next couple years. When people realize what we’re up against they are more willing to donate,” Janice describes.