David Salamone could have been remembered for the tragic way he contracted polio and the way that disease crippled, and eventually shortened, his life.
Instead, David can be remembered for the way he took polio upon himself, like the braces he strapped on his legs, and lived honorably and proudly, eventually helping to change this country’s vaccine policy and making sure other children would not get polio the same way.
“He was basically the unofficial poster boy for safer vaccines,” said John Salamone, David’s father. “They eventually came around and changed the policy, and David was the impetus for that.”
David died Sept. 7 at age 28. He was born in Fairfax and grew up in Oakton, but he lived much of his adult life in Ashburn.
David was born with an immune deficiency, which was only discovered after he contracted polio from the same vaccine – ironically – American children were given to prevent the disease. While polio had been declared officially eradicated “in the wild” in the 1970s, dozens of children like David were still contracting the disease each year via the vaccine.
The original vaccine, introduced in 1955 by Dr. Jonas Salk, was an inactivated vaccine that, through mass inoculations, nearly eliminated the disease that was widely considered the most serious health risk in post-World War II America. Years later, an activated form of the vaccine was developed that began to be used in place of Salk’s.
“They (the Centers for Disease Control and other medical authorities) decided to go with the live vaccine, mainly because it was oral as opposed to injected,” John Salamone said. “It was a lot easier to line kids up and give them a sugar cube instead of a shot when they were doing these mass vaccinations.”
Decades later, when David was born in 1990, dozens of children were still contracting polio. Even after they discovered the cause – live vaccines – they continued with the status quo.“They decided to keep things the way they were because the live vaccine was easy and inexpensive to administer, and it had been the routine for 40 years,” John said. “At the time they felt the sacrifice of a few dozen kids getting polio from the vaccine was the price to pay for a universal vaccine program. “They would just pay off those families. They said ‘Sorry,’ and they would get compensation for their medical expenses.”
When David was diagnosed, John said he began looking into the disease and was shocked by what he found.
“I did a lot of research on this, and only then did I find out there was a safe vaccine still available,” he said. “There is a zero percent chance of getting polio from an inactivated vaccine.”
For his parents, John, and Kathy and his sister, Elizabeth Ann Venafro of Leesburg, that began a roller-coaster ride that ended with them becoming advocates for a change in policy.
“We spent probably the first few days doing nothing but crying,” John said. “That was followed up by a little bit of anger when we realized it didn’t have to happen. That was followed up by action – making sure it happened to no one else.
“It was our way of coping, candidly, with the fact that we took our son to a doctor and now he was paralyzed.”
John said they began contacting public officials and finding and organizing other families victimized by the unsafe vaccine policy. He said they took the cause all the way to the White House.
“My background as a journalist helped me,” he said. “I wrote letters and I testified before Congress. I even met with Leon Panetta, who was chief of staff for President Clinton. I went to the White House and met with them and we got the president to weigh in with the CDC.
“It took about five years. They finally realized, when we brought children affected to the CDC, that the price was just too high.”
John said David lived much longer than the average person who contracts polio as a young child. He said David enjoyed fairly good health for almost half his life, and he tried to be as active as possible, despite is challenges.
“His health was pretty good until he was a bout 18,” John said. “He spent time snowboarding and bicycling. He loved sitting around fire pits with friends and celebrating July Fourth with his own personal fireworks display. He was brilliant with computers and earned certifications even when home bound.”
John said David’s health deteriorated over the last few years as the polio took over more and more of his body.
“Little by little, his liver began to enlarge, and he went into renal failure and lost his kidneys,” John said. “He outlived what should have been expected, but for us it was never long enough.”
John said David would live on with the policy changes he helped inspire, and through research into polio and immune deficiency.
“He was a patient at NIH (National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland) and after his passing, his body went there for an autopsy so they could learn more. He always wanted to contribute, to do anything he could so they could learn from him.”
A memorial service for family and close friends in scheduled Sept. 15 in Ashburn. The family is encouraging contributions be made to the Immune Deficiency Foundation, David Salamone Research Fund. The address is 110 West Road, Suite 300, Towson, Maryland, 21204. The toll-free number is 800-296-4433.