Polio’s Return to London

I was jolted by the news that the poliovirus had been detected in sewage samples in London because I caught polio in one of the last polio epidemics in Europe, which took place in Cork in Ireland in 1956. For myself and others of my generation, the risk posed by polio carries an extra charge of fear because it primarily harmed young children and could inflict devastating injuries on them. Its symbol was not the coffin, as with the Covid-19 epidemic, but the wheelchair, callipers and the iron lung.

The UK Health Security Agency says that the poliovirus was probably brought to London by somebody who had recently been vaccinated overseas with the live virus. Polio was once close to eradication, but vaccination campaigns in countries like Nigeria and Pakistan were hampered by fear that they were a bid by the CIA to sterilise Muslim men.

This conspiracy theory was given a boost when the CIA used a vaccination campaign in Pakistan – against hepatitis rather than polio, so far as I recall – as a way of getting the DNA of local children to see if any of them had the same DNA as Osama bin Laden. This would be evidence that he was hiding in the locality.

Needless to say, this bizarre scheme failed to locate bin Laden, but it did sabotage the polio eradication campaign in Pakistan by persuading many Muslims that some sort of Western plot was in the works.

I did not think much about the epidemic in Ireland for many years, though it had terrified people there at the time far more than the Covid-19 epidemic ever did. Once mass vaccination came to Europe in the late 1950s, the terror subsided and soon even the memory of the epidemic began to ebb, though this was not instantaneous. A Red Cross ambulance driver told me that, on seeing her vehicle in their streets, people in Cork would fall on their knees and pray, saying, “The polio is back! The polio is back!”

I wrote a book about the epidemic and my experiences called The Broken Boy, published in 2005, which has just been reissued. It is good that I wrote it when I did because I could still interview some of the surviving doctors and nurses who had treated me and others half a century earlier. There are still plenty of victims around because they were so young when they caught the disease.

Beneath the Radar

The media tends to over-cover big news events when they have too little information for wall-to-wall coverage, and later to undercover them when the story has gone off the boil despite new information becoming available.

This is certainly true of the Khashoggi murder since a strong possible motive for MBS and Saudi security wanting to kill him has emerged in the years since his death. The reason they decided to eliminate him – and in such a gruesome fashion – may have had little to do with his mild criticisms of the Saudi Kingdom published in the Washington Post, but were the restult of a threat he made privately in 2017, the year prior to his murder.

He was living in a Washington suburb in northern Virginia when he heard that the Saudi authorities had blocked his son from travelling out of the Kingdom. In a rage, he did a very dangerous thing, which was to contact a former FBI agent called Catherine Hunt, then working for the families of the 9/11 victims who were suing the Saudi government, saying that its officials, not necessarily with the knowledge of their own government, had been involved in helping the 9/11 plotters, 15 out of 19 of whom were Saudi nationals. Khashoggi had a meeting with Hunt in a coffee shop in Virginia at which he offered to use his inside knowledge to help the families in their suit against the Saudi government.

Hunt did not hear from him again, but it appears that he then told the Saudi authorities what he planned to do in order to blackmail them into letting his son travel. He may or may not have got his way on this occasion and he never met Hunt again, but his threat would have posed constant danger to the Saudi regime because its ruling family had long been trying – with strong help from the American Government prior to Biden – to avoid anything that would link them to 9/11.

I do not believe for a moment that they were implicated in the plot to destroy the World Trade Centre and attack the Pentagon, but it is likely that lower level Saudi officials did provide money and other assistance to the hijackers. Khashoggi’s threat would have been quite enough to get him killed.

This extraordinary story is explained in detail by Michael Isikoff, one of America’s best investigative reporters.

Cockburn’s Picks

I have been reading this book by Dani Rodrik, who seems to me to make more sense than other economists: The Globalization Paradox: Why Global Markets, States, and Democracy Can’t Coexist.

Patrick Cockburn is the author of War in the Age of Trump (Verso).