Fernando Torres-Gil was just six months old in 1948 when he contracted polio in the last major health panic that gripped this country. Now, at 72, he is deeply concerned about the nation’s response to the current pandemic, COVID-19. Ironically, these two great epidemics have bookended Torres-Gil’s life.
Polio affected young children and young adults and now the coronavirus is potentially lethal to older adults, Torres-Gil told his fellow Rotarians at their meeting earlier this month, timed to spotlight World Polio Awareness Month and the Rotary’s World Polio Awareness Day on October 24. When the Rotary and its partners launched the Global Polio Eradication Initiative in 1988, there were 350,000 cases of polio in 125 countries every year. Today, polio cases have been reduced by 99.9 percent, and just two countries continue to report cases of wild poliovirus: Afghanistan and Pakistan.
“Science matters, unity matters, public private partnerships matter,” Torres-Gil told the group on Zoom, “That’s what made the fight against polio work. It was a classic success story that brought to the eradication of the disease in the United States and around the world, unfortunately, it has been the exact opposite with COVID-19.”
Torres-Gil said the nation needs to go back to lessons learned with the polio epidemic, and the month of polio awareness is a good opportunity to do that. Like many, Torres-Gil is Zooming from his home these days, but he is not shy about his sharing his concerns. He told his fellow Rotarians that he worries that in addition to the tragic deaths of more than 210,000 Americans, the credibility of the National Institutes of Health and the scientific community are in mortal danger because of the way the Trump administration has handled this crisis.
Speaking from his extensive experience in the field of public health, Torres-Gil said, “we need data and facts.”
A mild mannered, respectful public servant for decades, Torres-Gil admitted that he’s “just about given up with being even handed with Donald Trump.” He said, “this is the first administration that has deliberately politicized our health and science institutions. This is the first time in anyone’s memory that we’ve seen this and keep in mind, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) was created by President Abraham Lincoln!”
Torres-Gil added warned there has been a flood of recent retirements from federal agencies, and many young researchers don’t want to work in the federal government, wondering how could they work in a government that does not value science. Torres-Gil warned that if Mr. Trump should win re-election, it would cause tremendous damage to the National Institute of Health because this is the first administration that deliberately politicized our science institutions.
The health of the nation is not a partisan issue, explained Torres-Gil, adding that this is a unique moment, in which the NIH is not free to be independent and the flow of information is controlled by political appointees who are embedded in every public information office.
Currently, Torres-Gil serves as the director of the Center for Policy Research on Aging at the Luskin School of Public Affairs at the University of California, Los Angeles. He is also a professor of social welfare and public policy at the school, where his is a leading spokesperson on demographics, aging and public policy.
His extensive background in public health began when he earned his first presidential appointment in 1978, when President Jimmy Carter appointed him to the Federal Council on Aging. He served as a White House Fellow under Joseph Califano, then Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW), and continued as a Special Assistant to the subsequent Secretary of HEW, Patricia Harris.
He also served in the Clinton Administration as the first-ever U.S. Assistant Secretary on Aging in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), where he played a key role in promoting the importance of the issues of aging, long-term care and disability, community services for the elderly, and baby boomer preparation for retirement. In 2010, Torres-Gil received his third presidential appointment (with Senate Confirmation) when President Barack Obama appointed him as Vice Chair of the National Council on Disability, an independent federal agency that reports to the Congress and White House on federal matters related to disability policy. During his public service in Washington, D.C., he also served as Staff Director of the U.S. House Select Committee on Aging under his mentor, Congressman Edward R. Roybal. In 2013, he received the coveted John W. Gardner Legacy of Leadership Award from the White House Fellows Foundation and Association.
Torres-Gil was born and raised in Salinas, California, the son of migrant farm workers. He credits his mother for getting him into the Shriners Hospital in the Bay Area, which provided free health care to disabled children. Polio destroys the nerves and the muscles atrophy, so as a growing child, Torres-Gil needed 13 separate surgeries to break his limbs and reset them correctly. While he was hospitalized, he was also educated and considers himself fortunate despite the significant challenges. He also credits the “rough kids” in his home town who always cheered for his success enabling him to become a role model.
Polio is a painful disease and there is still no cure, and Torres-Gil urges that we cannot allow it to come back. He and his fellow survivors are learning to live with the effects of the disease as they age, and some of the symptoms of the disease are coming back, so heworries about potential lingering effects COVID-19 patients will experience.
Viruses are deadly serious to Torres-Gil and he urges everyone to stay safe and support the science.