For many seniors, polio was first brush with a pandemic


We know that polio was present for many centuries. However, for unknown reasons, the disease became much more common in the early 1900s.

It was a viral disease that could cause severe and permanent paralysis, especially of the legs. It occurred mostly in children and showed up in the summer. Rarely it caused death.

Many of us still remember those summers, in the 1940s and 50s. Our mothers knew that polio attacked many children. They knew something about the spread of the virus. They knew that it occurred if families lived with poor sanitation. They urged their children to wash their hands and they did not allow swimming. There was no anti-viral treatment and no vaccine. The outbreak reached a peak in the late 1940s.

We now know that the virus entered through the mouth, passed through the GI tract, and was present in the stools. It was true that poor sanitation, lack of hand washing, living in cramped conditions, and swimming with other children – could help the virus spread.

Meanwhile Dr. Jonas Salk had spent many years developing a vaccine. Other vaccines already existed for smallpox, diphtheria, and other illnesses. In the early 1950s, Dr. Salk and his team had developed an acceptable vaccine. It had been tested and seemed both safe and effective. In 1954 a program was put into place to vaccinate all children in the U.S. Many of us lined up in school to get the first dose. Gradually, but consistently, cases began to decline. By the mid-1960s the disease had dramatically declined, and by the late 1960s it was essentially gone.

Polio patients often lived with their disability for the rest of their lives. Usually, they had weakness of the legs and often they required braces or even a wheelchair, to get around. Usually, it did not affect the arms and it seldom reached the brain. So, their intelligence was not impaired. It occasionally affected breathing and the patient may have been treated with an “iron lung,” before modern ventilators were invented. Usually, the loss of breathing was temporary.

Years later, polio has been eliminated in most of the world. A major effort from Rotary International, eliminated it in most of India and Africa, due to vaccination programs. Vaccination continues to be required and is part of children’s immunization requirements in the U.S. There has never been an antiviral medication developed, but it is not needed at this time.

Much as we worry about the future, due to our present pandemic of COVID-19; it is reassuring that polio has been eliminated during our lifetime. And it is interesting that the use of vaccine was so successful for polio elimination. As we move forward into a time when most Americans will be vaccinated against COVID-19, we can hope that the same success will again be seen.


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