Archive for Monday, July 15, 2013

Making polio nothing but a bad memory

July 15, 2013

Contrary to the thinking of younger generations or those who look at the past through rose colored glasses, growing up in the late 1940s and early 1950s wasn’t all that carefree. We spent our early childhood during World War II which was the focus of community activities. After the war ended we faced a whole new set of fears.

We grew up in the shadow of the atomic bomb and worried that at any moment Russia might unleash a devastating attack that would wipe out the world. We were taught silly protection techniques in school. In case of an atomic attack we were to get on the floor and cover our heads. Now we know that would be useless.

But that wasn’t the biggest fear of those years. We lived in anxiety about a silent, almost unexplainable killer that seemed to attack every summer. We lived in dread of poliomyelitis or polio. It delivered heavy blows to some communities and bypassed others. For a couple of years it made summer intolerable causing activities to be cancelled and swimming pools to be closed. We were told never to drink at a public water fountain. It seemed the angel of death and disability struck randomly with horrible results.

When I was in the third grade, there were a number of us who played together and lived in the same two block area. One little girl in our neighborhood contracted polio and died. I have always wondered why she was the only one to contract polio. We all played together and romped over the same area.

Many who survived the disease were crippled for life. Yes, we were afraid and with good reason. One family who were friends of my mother had three children die from the disease.

There are mentions of a disease thought to be polio in ancient Egypt. Dr. Michael Underwood, a British physician, first described the disease in 1789. Research by Dr. Jacob von Heine further expanded the definition and dangers of the disease in 1840.

The first epidemic of polio was reported in Vermont in 1894. There were 132 known cases and 18 deaths. While serious enough, it was nothing compared to the New York epidemic of 1916 with 27,000 cases and 6,000 deaths. An epidemic later, caused 57,628 cases with 3,745 deaths and 21,269 persons disabled.

Certainly the most famous polio survivor was Franklin Delano Roosevelt. FDR was crippled for life, but that didn’t stop him from serving as governor of New York and as president. There were millions of others like FDR and some much worse. According to what I’ve read, most of the victims of polio were white and affluent.

After a couple of bad years, the polio outbreaks were smaller for some unknown reason. While life returned to normal, the fear was always there.

The first big breakthrough came in 1952 when Dr. Jonas Salk developed a vaccine which prevented polio. As a youngster I remember standing in line and waiting for the shot. Usually, I didn’t like shots, but this time I really was happy. Things even got better when in 1962, Dr. Albert Sabine licensed an oral vaccine, which, if I remember correctly, we took on a cube of sugar.

Thanks to the efforts of service clubs and other benevolent and government organizations, the vaccine is available in almost every country. The last figures I could find showed that worldwide, there were 350,000 cases of polio in 1988. In 2007, there were only 1,652 cases worldwide and I’m sure that figure in much lower now. If it isn’t already here, the day is coming when polio will only be a bad memory in a much healthier world.


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