In Depth

Polio Fight Wins the Prize for RLTV

‘Healthline Presents’ Documentary Explores a Hard-Won Postwar Battle

Every year since 2004, the Association of Health Care Journalists has honored the best in health care reporting at its annual gathering.

This year’s first-place winner in the television category was a segment of “Healthline Presents” on Retirement Living TV (RLTV). “Polio Revisited” examined the highly infectious viral disease that, before the advent of a vaccine, caused paralysis and in some cases death for thousands of people, nationally and internationally.

The show profiled survivors and victims of the disease, the vaccines and their creators, the genuine risk that polio presents today for American children who aren’t immunized and the challenge of post-polio syndrome.

“We really backed into this documentary,” said “Healthline” executive producer David Wasser. “We had decided to do an episode on post-polio syndrome, a condition that can impact those who thought they had recovered from the crippling effects of the disease.”

While producing that episode, Mr. Wasser realized they had a wealth of material, including rare archival footage, that simply would not fit into a typical episode of “Healthline.”

“We also were made aware of the medical community’s concern for the increasing number of children who are not vaccinated against polio,” Mr. Wasser said. “Since our audience (adults age 50-plus) lived through this terror, they are in a perfect position to remind their adult children about ‘the bad old days’ and encourage them to vaccinate their kids. It’s a natural intergenerational call to action. The stakes are so high that I felt compelled to bring this project to fruition.”

In their comments about “Polio Revisited,” the AHCJ judges wrote, “This riveting documentary takes us back to the days before the development in the early 1950s of the polio vaccine. With heartbreaking archival footage, it shows the fear that gripped families as the number of polio cases continued to mount after World War II.” Depicted in that archival footage was the role the March of Dimes played in finding the cure, as well as President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s battle with the disease and its aftermath.

“This project was filled with surprises, but perhaps the biggest was finding out that there are still a handful of people living in iron lungs,” Mr. Wasser said. “We were fortunate to interview Diane Odell, who had contracted polio at age 3 and had spent the past 57 years in an iron lung. She managed to accomplish so much even though she was confined to the device, and was an inspiration to so many people.”

Sadly, Ms. Odell didn’t live long enough to see the finished project. She died before editing was completed. “I’m very thankful she was able to share her story, but regret she didn’t get to see the completed version,” Mr. Wasser said.

When informed that RLTV had won the top prize from AHCJ, Mr. Wasser said he was surprised. “There are so many great health stories being produced these days, so I was a little stunned,” he said. “It’s a special honor to be recognized by one’s peers.”