- Polio Across the Iron Curtain: Hungary's Cold War with an Epidemic by Dóra Vargha
Dóra Vargha's well-documented and clearly argued monograph is a welcome addition to the historiography on polio outside the United States and, more generally, to the history of medicine and public health in Socialist Eastern Europe. The book draws on primary sources from thirteen archives and libraries, including Hungarian repositories, an Albert B. Sabin collection, World Health Organization records, and International Committee of the Red Cross documents. It incorporates eyewitness accounts from fifteen people interviewed by Vargha. It offers a very interesting analysis of the intense coverage of polio by the Hungarian press. Last but not least, it weaves in information and arguments from a multitude of secondary studies. From this material, Vargha reconstructs a many-sided story that covers the epidemiological, cultural, and political history of polio in Hungary after the Second World War, while also situating Hungarian events and discourse within a wider medical context of international and cooperative efforts to develop a cure, on the one hand, and within the global political framework of Cold War ideological hostility and all-round rivalry, on the other. [End Page 633]
The history of the fight against polio in Hungary, Vargha demonstrates, actually challenges the view that Cold War antagonisms were ubiquitous and constant in the 1950s and 1960s. The search for a cure and the testing of vaccines, she argues convincingly, were characterized by transnational medical collaborations that crossed the Cold War divide. Polio researchers and public health officials from all over the world, not only the United States and Western Europe, shared medical data and information, presented research at international congresses, and participated in major vaccine trials. Interest in polio peaked at the same time around the world because in the 1950s so many countries experienced frequent and severe polio epidemics. Socialist health officials in Hungary (and the Soviet Union) were eager to learn from and work with research teams from the West in carrying out the decisive trials of the Sabin vaccine, while Western hospitals and medical personnel were happy to help supply equipment and vaccine to Hungary (and other Eastern European states). Transnational exchange and cooperation were actively promoted by the World Health Organization—which, she argues, gained respect and, gradually, participation from East Bloc countries in the 1960s.
The book traces the course of multiple polio epidemics in Hungary from the late 1940s through 1961. It discusses the varieties, technology, accessibility, venues, medical personnel, and patients' experience of polio treatment. It tracks the opening and extension of treatment centers and examines the ways in which Hungarian public health officials, doctors, and nurses worked to overcome and/ or circumvent shortages of, most significantly, iron lungs. Beyond the facts of polio, Vargha evaluates change and continuity in public discourse and private opinion about polio in Hungary. She considers why polio elicited considerably more official and popular fear than infectious diseases that were more common and deadlier than polio. As have other scholars, she points, above all, to the dominant demographic of its victims, children, and to the relatively high incidence of paralysis and, from that, long-term disabilities among them. Polio's perverse association with children's beloved summer recreational activities, she suggests, also contributed to the broad and deep anxieties that polio epidemics sparked. Polio's disproportionate impact on innocent children, she argues, is another reason that researchers and, more importantly, governments were willingly to breach the Iron Curtain when solving this international problem. The cooperative and successful effort against polio both represented and encouraged rising global concern about children's welfare. Inside Hungary too, the book shows, anxiety about polio's threat to children crossed domestic political divides and tempered the Communist regime's ideological rigidity. Initially, the repression that followed the crushing of the Hungarian revolution of 1956 hurt the efforts of doctors to diagnose and of hospitals to treat polio patients. When a polio epidemic broke out...